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Parkinson’s disease linked to brain’s ‘pain network’

on the August 31, 2018

Rodent studies reveal that a key brain structure targeted by treatments for Parkinson’s disease is also involved in processing and perceiving pain.


Parkinson’s disease is a condition affecting the human brain that becomes worse over time. The most common symptoms are tremors, muscle spasms and movements that are much slower than normal; all of which decrease an individual’s quality of life. Although there is currently no cure, the brain structures involved in Parkinson’s disease are known. These are collectively termed the basal ganglia, and are often targeted to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. For example, electrically stimulating the subthalamic nucleus (STN), one part of the basal ganglia, reduces muscle tremors and stiffness.

Pain is another common symptom in Parkinson’s disease. Patients often report strange burning or stabbing sensations with no obvious physical cause. They are also likely to be more sensitive to painful stimuli and have a lower pain threshold than normal. This suggested that the brain circuits that allow us to perceive and process pain could be somehow involved in Parkinson’s disease. Indeed, stimulating the STN is known to relieve pain in Parkinson’s disease, as well as the muscle symptoms, but exactly how the STN might link up with the brain’s ‘pain network’ remains poorly understood. Pautrat et al. therefore set out to explore the connection between pain networks and the STN, and determine its potential role in Parkinson’s disease.

First, the electrical activity of nerve cells in the STN of rats was measured, which revealed that these cells do respond to mildly painful sensations. Experiments using dyes to label cells in both the STN and brain structures known to transmit painful signals showed that the STN was indeed directly linked to the brain’s pain network. Moreover, rats with a STN that did not work properly also responded abnormally to painful stimuli, confirming that the STN did indeed influence their perception of pain. Finally, Pautrat et al. repeated their measurements of electrical activity in the STN this time using rats that lacked the same group of nerve cells affected in the basal ganglia of patients with Parkinson’s disease. Such rats are commonly used to model the disease in laboratory experiments. In these rats, the STN cells responded very strongly to painful stimuli, suggesting that problems with the STN could be causing some of the pain symptoms in Parkinson’s disease.

This work reveals a new role for the STN in controlling responses to pain, both in health and disease. Pautrat et al. hope that their results will inspire research into more effective treatments of nerve pain in both Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.


Reference : 

Arnaud Pautrat, Marta Rolland, Margaux Barthelemy, Christelle Baunez, Valérie Sinniger, Brigitte Piallat, Marc Savasta, Paul G Overton, Olivier David, Veronique Coizet (2018). Revealing a novel nociceptive network that links the subthalamic nucleus to pain processing. eLife 2018;7:e36607 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.36607. 
Updated on May 8, 2019

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