Despite the explosion of interest in the genetic underpinnings of individual differences in pain sensitivity, conflicting findings have emerged for most of the identified "pain genes". Perhaps the prime example of this inconsistency is represented by catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), as its substantial association to pain sensitivity has been reported in various studies, but rejected in several others. In line with findings from behavioral studies, we hypothesized that the effect of COMT on pain processing would become apparent only when the pain system was adequately challenged (i.e., after repeated pain stimulation). In the present study, we used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate the brain response to heat pain stimuli in 54 subjects genotyped for the common COMT val158met polymorphism (val/val = n 22, val/met = n 20, met/met = n 12). Met/met subjects exhibited stronger pain-related fMRI signals than val/val in several brain structures, including the periaqueductal gray matter, lingual gyrus, cerebellum, hippocampal formation and precuneus. These effects were observed only for high intensity pain stimuli after repeated administration. In spite of our relatively small sample size, our results suggest that COMT appears to affect pain processing. Our data demonstrate that the effect of COMT on pain processing can be detected in presence of 1) a sufficiently robust challenge to the pain system to detect a genotype effect, and/or 2) the recruitment of pain-dampening compensatory mechanisms by the putatively more pain sensitive met homozygotes. These findings may help explain the inconsistencies in reported findings of the impact of COMT in pain regulation. © 2011 Loggia et al.
Loggia, M. L., Jensen, K., Gollub, R. L., Wasan, A. D., Edwards, R. R., & Kong, J. (2011). The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) val 158met polymorphism affects brain responses to repeated painful stimuli. PLoS ONE, 6(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027764