Brain Signals Behind Pain Level Found

Neuron cells with glowing link knots. | Image by whitehoune, Shutterstock

For the first time, scientists have discovered brain signals that reveal a person’s pain level. The groundbreaking finding is expected to help in the development of treatments for chronic pain.

“What we’ve learned is that chronic pain can successfully be tracked and predicted in the real world, while patients are walking the dog, or at home, when they get up in the morning, and when they are going about their lives,” said Prasad Shirvalkar, a neurologist and lead researcher from the University of California, San Francisco, according to The Guardian.

The causes of chronic pain vary widely. Back problems, cancer, and arthritis are some of the many sources of long-term pain. Even potent pharmaceuticals are often ineffective at treating pain.

As part of the study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers implanted electrodes into four patients that suffered from unresolved chronic pain. With the press of a button, the device recorded brain activity in two separate regions – the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).

The subjects were asked to assess the pain multiple times each day and record their brain activity at that time. The scientists then fed this data into an algorithm that would predict a patient’s pain based on the feedback from the OFC.

The researchers discovered that brain activity differed for acute (short-term) pain versus chronic (long-term) pain.

“Chronic pain is not just a more enduring version of acute pain, it is fundamentally different in the brain … The hope is, as we understand this better, that we can use the information to develop personalised brain stimulation therapies for the most severe forms of pain,” Shirvalkar explained, per The Guardian.

The new findings may help those currently being treated for chronic pain. For some conditions, like Parkinson’s disease, deep brain stimulation (DBS) is used in extreme cases to treat pain. To be effective, doctors administering DBS need to know the exact signals to target.

Prof. Blair Smith, a chronic pain expert at the University of Dundee who was not involved in the study, said it is difficult to measure pain objectively, but the new findings might help provide a solution.

“If this research is successfully extended, it offers not only the opportunity to develop objective measurement of some types of pain, but also to enhance our understanding of the biological mechanisms,” he added.

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