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Brain Scan Patterns Can Reveal Pain

Update Date: Apr 11, 2013 09:37 AM EDT

The emotion of pain, which ranges from physical pain to mental pain, has always been viewed and understood as something that is subjective. When patients are required to tell doctors their levels of pain, they have to use a scale from one to ten Each and every person has a different threshold of pain, and thus it affects people differently. Although that is still very much the case, a new study revealed an objective way of observing and analyzing pain. The researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder discovered that pain could be displayed via brain scan patterns.

The research team, composed of scientists from John Hopkins University, New York University, and the University of Michigan as well as the University of Colorado Boulder, wanted to find ways of measuring certain emotional states and cognitive disorders, such as anxiety and depression, objectively. The researchers theorized that if brain scans could reveal the objective measures of pain, individual brain scans would then differ from one another. The researchers looked at 114 different images of brain scans that were taken when participants experienced different levels of heat that started at warm to painfully hot. The brain scan images were recorded via the computer. The researchers found that certain images were similar throughout all people, especially those who were exposed to the painfully hot temperatures.

"We found a pattern across multiple systems in the brain that is diagnostic of how much pain people felt in response to painful heat," said the lead author of the study, Tor Wager, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The researchers also discovered that the similar signatures found in all brain scans corresponded to physical pain, suggesting that physical pain and emotional pain cannot be measured in the same way. Previous research believed that both types of pain would look the same in a brain scan. In order to test whether or not the scans were depicting the emotion of pain, the researchers also used painkillers. Participants that were given painkillers had brain scans that showed less pain. The researchers aim to extend their findings into more research on pain and its impact on the brain.

"We're also looking towards using these same techniques to develop measures for chronic pain. The pattern we have found is not a measure of chronic pain, but we think it may be an 'ingredient' of chronic pain under some circumstances. 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."

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine

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