Breakthrough Study Identifies Brain Signals Involved in Chronic Pain for the First Time
A new study has identified signatures of electrical activity in the brains of people with chronic pain, providing a breakthrough in understanding the condition. Up until this point, the majority of investigations into persistent discomfort have utilized indirect methods to monitor brain function, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or electroencephalography. The study, which was published in Nature Neuroscience and funded by the National Institutes of Health, involved implanting electrodes directly into participants' brains and taking recordings as they went about their daily lives. The implants can both record people's brain waves and deliver electrical stimulation to the organ, which made the implants ideal for the ongoing clinical trial. The study is a significant step towards developing novel methods for tracking and treating chronic pain.
The majority of previous research on the brain's pain signals has utilized laboratory experiments conducted in synthetic settings. This study is unique as it directly identified some of the brain signals involved in chronic pain for the first time. Researchers implanted electrodes in the brains of four patients with long-lasting, debilitating pain and followed their brain signals for months. Participants recorded the ebb and flow of their pain on a scale of 0 to 10 several times a day and a button would cue their implanted electrodes to take a 30-second snapshot of their brain activity. Using machine learning, the researchers were able to predict the reported pain levels with specific neural activity patterns in each patient, defining a unique neural signature for that person’s pain experience. They found that signals from the orbitofrontal cortex were more strongly correlated with episodes of chronic pain than those from the anterior cingulate cortex.
The study reveals that chronic pain is not just a more enduring version of acute pain, but actually a fundamentally different interplay with different circuits. The hope is that as we understand this better, we can use this information to develop personalized brain stimulation therapies for the most severe forms of pain. Chronic pain, defined as pain lasting more than three months, affects up to 1 in 5 people in the US, making it more common than diabetes. However, clinicians have no way of objectively measuring or quantifying it, making treatment even more of a challenge.
Chronic pain is incredibly complex, an amalgam influenced by the body, brain, context, emotions, and expectations. The complexity of chronic pain makes it seemingly invisible to an outsider and very difficult to treat. This study is a significant step towards developing better tools to study and potentially affect pain responses in the brain, providing options to people living with chronic pain conditions. The hope is that the findings will lead to more effective treatments for chronic pain in the future.
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