Exploring whether repeated exposure to pain in fibromyalgia alters the brain signalling process

Disease - Back pain, fibromyalgia

Lead applicant - Dr Michael Lee

Organisation - University of Cambridge

Type of grant - Research Award

Status of grant - Active

Amount of the original award - £87,651.95

Start date - 1 August 2017

Reference - 21538

Public Summary

What are the aims of this research?

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes widespread pain and tiredness, so diagnosis can often be difficult. Pain is the primary symptom of fibromyalgia, but other symptoms are often felt, such as tenderness over much of the body and sensitivity to noise and light. So far, research has focussed on tackling the initial pain felt, but this research aims to look at why non-painful stimuli such as sound, light and touch become painful in people with fibromyalgia. The researchers aim to do this by seeing whether brain signals for pain differ in people with fibromyalgia.

Why is this research important?

Many people with fibromyalgia experience hypersensitivity to sound, light and touch. These symptoms are often thought to result from being unable to cope with the pain experienced, but instead they may result from widespread failure of sensory processing in the brain.

A phenomenon called repetition suppression is a common brain response experienced by people. For example, two identical bleeps in quick succession sound exactly the same to us, but our brains respond 50% less to the second bleep. This reduced brain response is known as repetition suppression and happens as less energy is required to deal with something that appears less interesting or threatening.

This research looks to identify if this repetition suppression phenomenon is absent in people with fibromyalgia, where non-threatening stimuli such as touch and sound become abnormally painful. By looking at people with fibromyalgia, the researchers will be able to measure brain signals when sound and touch-like stimuli are used at ‘tender-points’ in fibromyalgia – the lower back and elbow.

How will the findings benefit patients?

If a lack of repetition suppression is found in people with fibromyalgia then it will allow for further research into treatments, by seeing if medication can modify this brain response. Furthermore, it might help to explain why some people with fibromyalgia are often hypersensitive to sound, light and touch and experience pain, even when these stimuli are not physically harmful. By increasing awareness and knowledge of fibromyalgia through research such as this, further studies will also be able to address symptom differences seen between people.