Behavioural & Cognitive Sciences

How does pain change with age?

The impact of ageing on the way pain is processed is not yet clearly understood. We are looking at brain activity to examine the way psychological factors can modulate pain in young and older people. A fuller understanding of the way pain perception changes when we get older may lead to better treatment strategies targeted towards older adults.

Pain in older people is common but poorly understood

Many older adults suffer from acute or chronic pain. Pain in this group is often under-diagnosed and under-treated, leading to adverse health outcomes. In our ageing society, this means a heavy burden on the healthcare system. Surprisingly little research, however, has focused on the way aging affects pain perception. When we get older, many structural and functional changes take place in our bodies, including our brains. It is therefore not unlikely that pain may be processed differently in older individuals. However, pain treatment studies have almost exclusively been conducted in young adults, and the efficacy of psychological interventions in the older population remains largely unexplored.

Studying brain activity related to pain perception

Our aim is to examine the way pain perception changes with age. Pain perception is not just a sensation but also involves emotional and cognitive processes which can considerably worsen or alleviate pain. We focus specifically on two such processes, namely distraction and expectations. In young people, an individual’s beliefs and expectations about pain, and the attention they pay pain, can greatly reduce it. This modulation of pain depends on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex in the brain. This region is also one of the first to show age-related decline. We are investigating pain perception and psychological modulation in older individuals, using different neuroimaging techniques.

Towards better targeted and more efficient pain treatment

One method we use to study brain activity is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This technique gives us a precise picture of the brain regions involved in the perception and modulation of pain in young and older participants. The second method is electroencephalography (EEG) which measures the electrical activity at the surface of the brain and provides the exact time course of pain-related processes. Together, these methods can inform us about spatial and temporal changes in cerebral processing and the modulation of pain in ageing. We are still collecting data but are already seeing very different brain activity in older versus young participants, suggestive of less efficient reduction of pain. A better understanding of the way pain perception changes with age is a first step towards developing more effective pain treatment specifically for our ageing population. This FNR-funded project runs until autumn 2020.

People related to this project