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Brain Scans Reveal Pain Is "Visible"

Apr 11, 2013 04:38 PM EDT

Anyone whose ever been asked to rate his or her pain on a scale from 1 to 10 knows that there's an inherit problem with the question: it's subjective. Which is why scientists are heralding the news that researchers may have found a way to actually see pain via brain scans as a major breakthrough toward translating human suffering into quantitative, objective terms.

The discovery, led by Tor Wager and published in April 11 issue of New England Journal of Medicine, came as a result of detailed computer searches of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of 114 people after they had been exposed to varying degrees of heat from simply warm to painfully hot.

Going in, researchers expected to find unique neurolgical patterns in each person's brain. And while the patterns were there, the scientists found that they weren't so much determined by the person as the amount of pain he or she was undergoing. 

In all, the pain "signatures" enabled researchers 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. This was true even when prior brain scans from each person were available for reference.

Wager and his team then examined the brain patterns after patients were offered an analgesic to dull the pain. Sure enough, the signature registered a decrease in pain.

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.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation.

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