BACKGROUND: Attrition rates of new analgesics during drug development are high; poor assay sensitivity with reliance on subjective outcome measures being a crucial factor. METHODS: The authors assessed the utility of functional magnetic resonance imaging with capsaicin-induced central sensitization, a mechanism relevant in neuropathic pain, for obtaining mechanism-based objective outcome measures that can differentiate an effective analgesic (gabapentin) from an ineffective analgesic (ibuprofen) and both from placebo. The authors used a double-blind, randomized phase I study design (N = 24) with single oral doses. RESULTS: Only gabapentin suppressed the secondary mechanical hyperalgesia-evoked neural response in a region of the brainstem's descending pain modulatory system (right nucleus cuneiformis) and left (contralateral) posterior insular cortex and secondary somatosensory cortex. Similarly, only gabapentin suppressed the resting-state functional connectivity during central sensitization between the thalamus and secondary somatosensory cortex, which was plasma gabapentin level dependent. A power analysis showed that with 12 data sets, when using neural activity from the left posterior insula and right nucleus cuneiformis, a statistically significant difference between placebo and gabapentin was detected with probability ≥ 0.8. When using subjective pain ratings, this reduced to less than or equal to 0.6. CONCLUSIONS: Functional imaging with central sensitization can be used as a sensitive mechanism-based assay to guide go/no-go decisions on selecting analgesics effective in neuropathic pain in early human drug development. We also show analgesic modulation of neural activity by using resting-state functional connectivity, a less challenging paradigm that is ideally suited for patient studies because it requires no task or pain provocation.
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Adult, Amines, Analgesics, Analgesics, Non-Narcotic, Brain, Capsaicin, Cyclohexanecarboxylic Acids, Double-Blind Method, Female, Gabapentin, Humans, Hyperalgesia, Ibuprofen, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Neuroimaging, Reproducibility of Results, Treatment Outcome, Young Adult, gamma-Aminobutyric Acid