June 15, 2024

Brain Changes Influencing Pain Sensitivity May Impact Older Women More

A recent study has discovered that the brain system responsible for inhibiting pain undergoes changes with age. These changes, combined with gender-based differences, may result in older females being more sensitive to moderate pain compared to older males.

The findings suggest that the established gender differences in pain perception may be attributed, at least partly, to the brain network responsible for pain regulation. Additionally, the study provides new evidence that these gender differences may become more pronounced with age.

Michelle Failla, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University, emphasized the importance of studying gender in relation to age. Most previous research on the brain regions involved in pain perception has focused on individuals aged 18 to 40. However, understanding the changes that occur between the ages of 30 and 90 is crucial since this is when people begin to experience chronic pain.

Published recently in The Journal of Pain, the study sheds light on the brain’s role in pain perception, particularly in older adults who are more susceptible to chronic pain and have a lower pain tolerance.

Previous research has consistently shown that females tend to be more sensitive to pain than males. However, the specific brain regions and functions responsible for these gender differences have largely remained unknown. This study aimed to address this gap by exploring gender-based differences influenced not only by biological sex but also by social factors that impact pain response.

The study involved 27 females and 32 males aged between 30 and 86. Participants were asked to report their perception of pain when exposed to various levels of heat, ranging from just-noticeable to weak and moderate pain. fMRI imaging was used to observe the activity of the DPMS corresponding to each participant’s pain response.

Michelle Failla highlighted the importance of distinguishing between the perception of pain intensity and unpleasantness, as different brain regions are involved in each. The study aimed to investigate the recruitment of these brain regions during pain.

The results showed that a few specific regions within the brain’s pain modulatory system displayed a gender-by-age difference. As men aged, their DPMS response increased at the moderate pain level. Conversely, as women aged, their DPMS response decreased. A decreased response in the brain generally suggests a reduced ability to utilize physiological functions to alleviate pain.

These findings contribute to a better understanding of the factors influencing pain perception and response, particularly in older individuals. The gender and age-related changes identified in the study may have implications for the management and treatment of chronic pain in older women. Further research in this area is warranted to explore potential interventions and strategies targeting these brain changes to improve pain management for older adults, particularly females.

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