Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System have found that Fibromyalgia patients had a decrease in their pain when levels of the brain molecule glutamate was lower. This new discovery could possibly help researchers who are looking for new drugs that treat the misunderstood illness.
The lead author of the study, Richard E. Harris, PhD, research assistant professor in the Division of Rheumatology at the U-M Medical School’s Department of Internal Medicine and a researcher at the U-M Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, said:
If these findings are replicated, investigators performing clinical treatment trials in Fibromyalgia could potentially use glutamate as a surrogate marker of disease response.
Glutamate is a brain molecule that is considered a neurotransmitter; therefore, it transfers information between neurons and the nervous system. When glutamate is released from one neuron, it diffuses across the space between cells, and then binds to receptors on the next neuron in line and causes the cell to become excited, or to be more active.
Brain regions in Fibromyalgia patients had been previously studied and glutamate was suspected to play a role because studies had revealed that some areas of Fibromyalgia patients’ brains were highly excited, especially the insula. This area of the brain is what interprets information relating to bodily states including pain.
According to the research:
In functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, researchers at U-M had previously shown that the insula displays augmented activity in Fibromyalgia, which means neurons in these patients are more active in this part of the brain. The U-M team hypothesized, Harris notes, that more activity among these neurons might be related to the level of glutamate in this region.
To gauge the linkage between pain and glutamate, the researchers used a non-invasive brain imaging technique called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (H-MRS). H-MRS was performed once before and once following a four-week course of acupuncture or sham acupuncture.
Researchers used either acupuncture or sham acupuncture to reduce pain symptoms. The sham procedure involved using a sharp device to prick the skin in order to mimic real acupuncture sensations.
After four weeks of treatment here were the results:
- Reported clinical and experimental pain were significantly reduced.
- The reduction in both pain outcomes was linked with reductions in glutamate levels in the insula: Patients with greater reductions in pain showed greater reductions in glutamate.
- Glutamate may play a role in this disease and that it could potentially be used as a biomarker of disease severity.