Loss of nucleus accumbens low-frequency fluctuations is a signature of chronic pain

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Chronic pain is a highly prevalent disease with poorly understood pathophysiology. In particular, the brain mechanisms mediating the transition from acute to chronic pain remain largely unknown. Here, we identify a subcortical signature of back pain. Specifically, subacute back pain patients who are at risk for developing chronic pain exhibit a smaller nucleus accumbens volume, which persists in the chronic phase, compared to healthy controls. The smaller accumbens volume was also observed in a separate cohort of chronic low-back pain patients and was associated with dynamic changes in functional connectivity. At baseline, subacute back pain patients showed altered local nucleus accumbens connectivity between putative shell and core, irrespective of the risk of transition to chronic pain. At follow-up, connectivity changes were observed between nucleus accumbens and rostral anterior cingulate cortex in the patients with persistent pain. Analysis of the power spectral density of nucleus accumbens resting-state activity in the subacute and chronic back pain patients revealed loss of power in the slow-5 frequency band (0.01 to 0.027 Hz) which developed only in the chronic phase of pain. This loss of power was reproducible across two cohorts of chronic low-back pain patients obtained from different sites and accurately classified chronic low-back pain patients in two additional independent datasets. Our results provide evidence that lower nucleus accumbens volume confers risk for developing chronic pain and altered nucleus accumbens activity is a signature of the state of chronic pain.