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Postherpetic Neuralgia (PHN), develops after the resolution of the herpes zoster mucocutaneous eruption, is a debilitating chronic pain. However, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the underlying mechanisms associated with ascending and descending pain modulations in PHN patients. Here, we combined psychophysics with structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to investigate the brain alternations in PHN patients. Psychophysical tests showed that compared with healthy controls, PHN patients had increased state and trait anxiety and depression. Structural MRI data indicated that PHN patients had significantly smaller gray matter volumes of the thalamus and amygdala than healthy controls, and the thalamus volume was negatively correlated with pain intensity (assessed using the Short-form of the McGill pain questionnaire) in PHN patients. When the thalamus and periaqueductal gray matter (PAG) were used as the seeds, resting-state functional MRI data revealed abnormal patterns of functional connectivity within ascending and descending pain pathways in PHN patients, e.g., increased functional connectivity between the thalamus and somatosensory cortices and decreased functional connectivity between the PAG and frontal cortices. In addition, subjective ratings of both Present Pain Index (PPI) and Beck-Depression Inventory (BDI) were negatively correlated with the strength of functional connectivity between the PAG and primary somatosensory cortex (SI), and importantly, the effect of BDI on PPI was mediated by the PAG-SI functional connectivity. Overall, our results provided evidence suggesting deficits in ascending and descending pain modulation pathways, which were highly associated with the intensity of chronic pain and its emotional comorbidities in PHN patients. Therefore, our study deepened our understanding of the pathogenesis of PHN, which would be helpful in determining the optimized treatment for the patients.

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CAS Key Laboratory of Behavioral Science, Institute of Psychology, Beijing 100101, China; Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China.


Periaqueductal Gray, Amygdala, Thalamus, Cerebral Cortex, Nerve Net, Neural Pathways, Humans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Depression, Anxiety, Aged, Middle Aged, Female, Male, Neuralgia, Postherpetic, Connectome, Gray Matter