Studying Chronic Pain through Brain Imaging

One of the reasons I’m so optimistic about the future is that right now, researchers are beginning to identify exactly which parts of the brain are involved in our experience of pain.

One of the key tools making this work possible is called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

An fMRI is slightly different from what most people think of as an MRI.  While regular MRI takes “snapshots” of what is going on in the body, fMRI shows patterns of blood flow in the brain.

Because the more active parts of the brain require more oxygen, fMRI shows us which parts of the brain are more active than others.

Using fMRI, scientists have been able to identify distinct patterns of brain activity in the brains of chronic pain sufferers.  These patterns of activity set chronic pain sufferers apart from healthy individuals.

In other words, you can actually see–in real time, from one minute to the next– how the brains of chronic pain patients are working differently than the brains of people without pain.

Although this work is still in the preliminary stages, I find this entire branch of research to be incredibly validating.

Someday, I believe, it will be much more difficult for doctors to dismiss chronic pain patients, because the effects of pain on the brain will be much better understood.   After all, it will be less a matter of taking our word for it when we’re talking about something you’ve seen on an fMRI screen.

Additionally, there is every reason to believe this deeper understanding will, in turn, lead to better and better treatments.  Right now, researchers such as Christopher deCharms and Dr. Sean Mackey (see below) are investigating how fMRI can provide as a form of biofeedback to allow patients to learn to control their own pain levels.  There research is really promising so far, and I’m really hopeful about the future of this work.

For more, check out the links below.

About fMRI:

What is fMRI?

What is functional magnetic resonance imaging?

fMRI and Pain:

Dr. Sean Mackey presentations: An Update on Fibromyalgia  and Using fMRI to treat substance abuse and chronic pain

Christopher deCharms: A look inside the brain in real time (TED talk)

Mind Over Matter, With a Machine’s Help (New York Times)

My Pain, My Brain (New York Times)

Scientific Articles:

Pain imaging in health and disease– how far have we come? 

Breaking down the Barriers: fMRI applications in pain, analgesia, and analgesics

The Pain Imaging Revolution- Advancing Pain into the 21st century

Beyond Feeling: Chronic Pain Hurts the Brain, Disrupting the Default-Mode Network Dynamics

Neuroimaging chronic pain: what have we learned and where are we going?

Functional MRI may help identify new, effective painkillers for chronic pain sufferers

An fMRI-Based Neurologic Signature of Physical Pain

Example of an upcoming clinical trial looking at brain imaging for pain– This sort of study is the reason I am so optimistic about future treatments for pain!

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