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Using Brain Scan to Control Pain

In July, NPR did a story on a type of MRI of the brain that shows nerve activation when a person is in pain. The link to the study abstract didn’t work, so I removed it in yesterday’s housekeeping. Coincidentally, the study made news again this week when the results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study, pain researchers at Stanford used functional MRI (or fMRI) to show where pain occurs in the brain. The scans indicate where pain is activated and how it is being processed. To test participants’ responses for this study, researchers applied a painful amount of heat to participants’ hands, then divided participants into groups.

In one group, each member was put in the MRI to watch his or her own brain activity. Researchers provided members of this group with mental strategies for dealing with pain. Over time, group members developed an ability to control their responses to pain.

Other groups were either not shown scans but were given behavioral strategies to respond to cope with the pain, or were shown scans of different areas of the brain or other people’s pain responses. Members of these groups did not show a change in pain responses.

The study indicates that there may be a connection between being able to see pain activity in your own brain and reducing the pain. However, as with many of the studies that make the news, application of this treatment for control pain is years away. Further research must be done to support and better understand the study’s results and the equipment must be available in more facilities before these findings can be applied.

Recent Articles on the Study

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Brain Scans Show Nerve Activation with Pain

Pain researchers at Stanford experimenting with a type of MRI that shows where pain occurs in the brain and how to control it. The scans indicate where pain is activated, how it is being processed and how it comes about. Researchers hope that eventually such imaging can be used to test pain medications and see the effects in real-time. Since patients can sit in the brain scanner and see the areas of the brain that are activated by pain, it could also be used in meditation or mental imaging. This technology has many potential uses and may one day be used for all types of pain patients; but it is years away from being available to patients.

The story, Tracking and Controlling Pain by Sight, is available on the NPR website. Written media reports of it don’t seem to be available yet, but you can read the researchers’ abstract from the American Pain Society’s 2004 annual meeting.

Thanks to koober1 on the Brain Talk migraine forum for sharing this story.

Note added 12/14/05: The researchers’ abstract is no longer available, but the NPR piece is.