The study appears online in Current Biology.
The researchers asked study participants to complete either a difficult or easy memory task while a painful level of heat was applied to their arms. Both tasks required participants to remember letters. They found that participants who completed the harder memory task experienced less pain.
In addition, the team used high-resolution spinal fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and found that the lower levels of pain were linked with reduced activity in the spinal cord.
Christian Sprenger of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, explained:
"The results demonstrate that this phenomenon is not just a psychological phenomenon, but an active neuronal mechanism reducing the amount of pain signals ascending from the spinal cord to higher-order brain regions."
According to the researchers, the pain-relieving effects involve endogenous opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain and play a vital role in the alleviation of pain.
The study participants where then required to complete the task again, but this time they were given either a drug called naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids, or a simple saline infusion. The researchers found that distraction was significantly less effective (40%) when participants received naloxone.
Results from the study demonstrate just how deeply mental processes can go in changing the experience of pain, and that may have clinical importance.
The researchers conclude:
"Our findings strengthen the role of cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approaches in the treatment of pain diseases, as it could be extrapolated that these approaches might also have the potential to alter the underlying neurobiological mechanisms as easy as in the spinal cord."
Written By Grace Rattue