10 September 2018
Chronic pain is a major health care issue characterized by ongoing pain and a variety of sensory, cognitive, and affective abnormalities. The neural basis of chronic pain is still not completely understood. Previous work has implicated prefrontal brain areas in chronic pain. Furthermore, prefrontal neuronal oscillations at gamma frequencies (60–90 Hz) have been shown to reflect the perceived intensity of longer lasting experimental pain in healthy human participants. In contrast, noxious stimulus intensity has been related to alpha (8–13 Hz) and beta (14–29 Hz) oscillations in sensorimotor areas. However, it is not fully understood how the intensity of ongoing pain as the key symptom of chronic pain is represented in the human brain. Here, we asked 31 chronic back pain patients to continuously rate their ongoing pain while simultaneously recording electroencephalography (EEG). Time–frequency analyses revealed a positive association between ongoing pain intensity and prefrontal beta and gamma oscillations. No association was found between pain and alpha or beta oscillations in sensorimotor areas. These findings indicate that ongoing pain as the key symptom of chronic pain is reflected by neuronal oscillations implicated in the subjective perception of longer lasting pain rather than by neuronal oscillations related to the processing of objective nociceptive input. The findings, thus, support a dissociation of pain intensity from nociceptive processing in chronic back pain patients. Furthermore, although possible confounds by muscle activity have to be taken into account, they might be useful for defining a neurophysiological marker of ongoing pain in the human brain.