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Bunk, Steffie; Emch, Monica; Koch, Kathrin; Lautenbacher, Stefan; Zuidema, Sytse and Kunz, Miriam (2020): Pain Processing in Older Adults and Its Association with Prefrontal Characteristics. In: Brain Sciences, Vol. 10, No. 8, 477

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Aging is known to affect nociceptive processing, e.g., the ability to inhibit pain. This study aims to investigate whether pain responses in older individuals are associated with prefrontal characteristics, namely (i) executive functioning performance and (ii) structural brain variations in the prefrontal cortex. Heat and pressure stimuli were applied to assess pressure pain sensitivity and endogenous pain inhibition in 46 healthy older individuals. Executive functioning performance was assessed in three domains (i.e., cognitive inhibition, shifting, and updating) and structural brain variations were assessed in both gray and white matter. Overall pain responses were significantly associated with the executive functioning domains cognitive inhibition and shifting. However, no specific type of pain response showed an especially strong association. Endogenous pain inhibition specifically showed a significant association with gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and with variations in white matter structure of tracts connecting the prefrontal cortex with the periaqueductal gray. Hierarchical regression analyses showed that these variations in the prefrontal cortex can explain variance in pain inhibition beyond what can be explained by executive functioning. This might indicate that known deficits in pain inhibition in older individuals are associated with structural variations in prefrontal areas.

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