Men and women can exhibit different pain sensitivities and many chronic pain conditions are more prevalent in one sex. Although there is evidence of sex differences in the brain, it is not known whether there are sex differences in the organization of large-scale functional brain networks in chronic pain. Here, we used graph theory with modular analysis and machine-learning of resting-state (RS)-fMRI data from 220 participants; 155 healthy controls and 65 individuals with chronic low back pain due to ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a form of arthritis.We found an extensive overlap in the graph partitions with the major brain intrinsic systems (i.e., default mode, central, visual and sensorimotor modules), but also sex-specific network topological characteristics in healthy people and those with chronic pain. People with chronic pain exhibited higher cross-network connectivity, and sex-specific nodal graph properties changes (i.e., Hubs disruption), some of which were associated with the severity of the chronic pain condition. Females exhibited atypically higher functional segregation in the mid- and subgenual cingulate cortex and lower connectivity in the network with the default mode and fronto-parietal modules; whereas males exhibited stronger connectivity with the sensorimotor module. Classification models on nodal graph metrics could classify an individuals’ sex and whether they have chronic pain with high accuracies (77-92%). These findings highlight the organizational abnormalities of RS-brain networks in people with chronic pain and provide a framework to consider sex-specific pain therapeutics.

References

PubMed