Significance: Knee osteoarthritis (OA) is a common joint disease causing chronic pain and functional alterations (stiffness and swelling) in the elderly population. OA is currently treated pharmacologically with analgesics, although neuromodulation via transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has recently generated a growing interest as a safe side-effect free treatment alternative or a complement to medications for chronic pain conditions. Although a number of studies have shown that tDCS has a beneficial effect on behavioral measures of pain, the mechanistic action of neuromodulation on pain sensitivity and coping at the central nervous system is not well understood.
Aim: We aimed at observing longitudinal changes of cortical hemodynamics in older adults with knee OA associated with a two-week-long tDCS self-treatment protocol.
Approach: Hemodynamics was measured bilaterally in the motor and somatosensory cortices with functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in response to thermal pain induced ipsilaterally to the knee primarily affected by OA.
Results: We found that both oxyhemoglobin- and deoxyhemoglobin-related functional activations significantly increased during the course of the tDCS treatment, supporting the notion that tDCS yields an increased cortical excitability. Concurrently, clinical measures of pain decreased with tDCS treatment, hinting at a potential spatial dissociation between cortically mediated pain perception and suppression and the prevalence of neuromodulatory effects over cortical pain processing.
Conclusions: fNIRS is a valid method for objectively tracking pain in an ambulatory setting and it could potentially be used to inform strategies for optimized tDCS treatment and to develop innovative tDCS protocols.