Background Little is known about brain mechanisms supporting the experience of chronic puritus in disease states.
Objectives To examine the difference in brain processing of histamine-induced itch in patients with active atopic dermatitis (AD) vs. healthy controls with the emerging technique of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) using arterial spin labelling (ASL).
Methods Itch was induced with histamine iontophoresis in eight patients with AD and seven healthy subjects.
Results We found significant differences in brain processing of histamine-induced itch between patients with AD and healthy subjects. Patients with AD exhibited bilateral activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), retrosplenial cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) as well as contralateral activation of the caudate nucleus and putamen. In contrast, healthy subjects activated the primary motor cortex, primary somatosensory cortex and superior parietal lobe. The PCC and precuneus exhibited significantly greater activity in patients vs. healthy subjects. A significant correlation between percentage changes of brain activation was noted in the activation of the ACC and contralateral insula and histamine-induced itch intensity as well as disease severity in patients with AD. In addition, an association was noted between DLPFC activity and disease severity.
Conclusions Our results demonstrate that ASL fMRI is a promising technique to assess brain activity in chronic itch. Brain activity of acute itch in AD seems to differ from that in healthy subjects. Moreover, the activity in cortical areas involved in affect and emotion correlated to measures of disease severity.