Study shows brain scan patterns allows for the first objective measure of pain

April 10, 2013

April 10, 2013                                       Tor Wager

For the first time, scientists have been able to predict how much pain people are feeling by looking at images of their brains, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tor Wager, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU-Boulder and lead author of the paper, says the findings may lead to the development of reliable methods doctors can use to objectively quantify a patient’s pain.

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Study shows brain scan patterns allows for the first objective measure of pain

April 10, 2013                                                                                               Tor Wager

For the first time, scientists have been able to predict how much pain people are feeling by looking at images of their brains, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tor Wager, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU-Boulder and lead author of the paper, says the findings may lead to the development of reliable methods doctors can use to objectively quantify a patient’s pain.

CUT 1  “What we did and what we found is really one of the first instances in which we can take a pattern of brain activity derived from a person scanned – an individual person – and predict how much pain somebody’s feeling based on their brain scan with a relatively high degree of accuracy. (:19)

Wager says the research team used computer data-mining techniques to comb through images of brains that were taken when the subjects were exposed to multiple levels of heat, ranging from benignly warm to painfully hot. With the help of the computer, the scientists identified a distinct neurologic signature for the pain.

CUT 2 “What we found is there’s a signature across the brain that is diagnostic of how much pain people feel in response to heat applied to different parts of the body. It’s sort of like holding a hot cup of coffee and you really want to put it down and it’s really painful, but you have to hold on for a few more seconds. (:18) Based on that we get brain images from each person and we can predict between 90 and 100 percent accuracy which of two different conditions is more painful than the other one.” (:27)

Currently, pain intensity can only be measured based on a patient’s own description. The problem with that measurement method, says Wager, is that the level of pain from one person to another can easily be misinterpreted which can lead to problems for patients.

CUT 3 “One problem is that while pain specialists typically know that a person’s pain is real and they take it seriously, not everybody does. (:11) And what happens then is that people go in for pain conditions and people sometimes think that they’re crazy, they sometimes ignore their pain, they sometimes think they’re making a big deal out of a small thing, and that causes a huge problem in our medical system. And it causes a huge amount of suffering.” (:29)

But, he says, objective measures of pain could confirm those pain reports and provide new clues into how the brain generates different types of pain.

CUT 4 “And so the idea of this project is to start to provide objective measures based on brain activity of what patterns in the brain are diagnostic of physical pain, (:13) which can let us develop objective tests that a doctor or a physician or a hospital can use to corroborate people’s pain experience.” (:23)

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

CUT 5 “We’re starting to make a lot of progress in understanding the brain basis of different higher cognitive functions -- of thoughts, feelings, emotions, reasoning – (:11) and we’re working towards understanding the brain basis for a number of disorders that cause distress, including different kinds of pain, emotional distress, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia.” (:26)

The research team included scientists from New York University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Michigan,

The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, was published today in the New England Journal of Medicine,

 

-CU-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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