Level of Pain Astonishingly Visible in Brain Scans

First Posted: Apr 11, 2013 10:12 PM EDT

Researchers were astonished by the surprising result of their analysis of brain scans, showing that the level of pain can be revealed in universal patterns. This is a major breakthrough that makes it possible to measure pain objectively for the first time.

The discovery was published in the April 11 issue of New England Journal of Medicine, led by Tor Wager. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of 114 people exposed to varying degrees of heat from simply warm to painfully hot were analyzed with advanced data-mining algorithms searching for patterns to reveal the surprising result that such patterns are not unique to each person, as initially expected.

The patterns seemed to be determined by the amount of pain a person was undergoing. And indeed, these distinct neurologic pain "signatures" identified by the computer enabled the scientists to predict with 90 percent to 100 percent accuracy whether a person had undergone a level of exposure to heat that was painful or not.

"We found a pattern across multiple systems in the brain that is diagnostic of how much pain people feel in response to painful heat." Wager said.

The new research results also may set the stage for the development of methods using brain scans to objectively measure anxiety, depression, anger or other emotional states.

Wager and his team also tested if the brain patterns indicated a decrease of pain after patients were give painkillers -- which was also clearly shown.

Going forward, Wager said in a press release, he and others are looking to test the brain scan signatures across different conditions.

"Is the predictive signature different if you experience pressure pain or mechanical pain, or pain on different parts of the body?" he asks.

Ultimately, however, he hopes that as these questions are answered, he will be able to develop measures for chronic pain.

"Understanding the different contributions of different systems to chronic pain and other forms of suffering is an important step towards understanding and alleviating human suffering," he said.

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