Pain is in the brain

This image shows regions of the "neurologic pain signature," a standard map that can be applied to individuals who may be feeling pain. The map was developed based on heat pain applied to participants' forearms. Activity in yellow areas is predictive of higher levels of pain, and activity in blue areas is predictive of lower levels. (Photo: Tor Wager, University of Colorado, Boulder, via AP)

Pain is much on my mind lately. As recently as last November I wrote a post (Pain) in which I talked about my reluctance to use narcotic pain relief. Recent readers of Telling Knots will know that I have since agreed to take the stuff in spite of my objections. I still hate it and I still take as little as possible as infrequently as possible.

I wish there was a non-narcotic medicine for moderate to severe pain, and every now and then I spend some time on PubMed looking for answers. I stumbled across some fascinating findings today.

The image above and its caption are from USA Today online article from April 10, 2013. (Please hover over the image with your mouse to read the explanation and photo credit.) This very exciting research used functional Magnetic  Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to develop a “neurological signature” of physical pain.

A free preview of the original article in the New England Journal of Medicine can be see online here.

It is very, very early days and this research consists of four studies with a total of only 114 healthy subjects in the laboratory. Even so, the possibilities are tantalizing. The USA Today article quotes lead author Tor Wager: “”Many people suffer from chronic pain, and they’re not always believed. We see this as a way to confirm or corroborate pain if there is a doubt.”

The novelty of this study is not simply producing an image of what happens in the brain when pain is perceived, but in producing a combined signature that can actually measure pain. Furthermore, the researchers were able to distinguish physical pain from social or emotional pain.

As I said at the beginning of this post,I wish there was a non-narcotic medicine for moderate to severe pain, and obviously, I am not the only person interested in this: the study was partially funded by the (United States) National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example.

Aside from this being very cool research that may have many fascinating applications in the not-too-distant future, there is one aspect of it that I immediately hooked into. As Dr. Allan Ropper told USA Today, “This is beginning to open a new wedge into brain science,” Ropper said. “There may be completely novel ways of treating pain by focusing on these areas of the brain rather than on conventional medications which block pain impulses from getting into the spinal cord and brain.”

And that made me do a happy dance. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to treat pain (the whole pain, and nothing but the pain) without the side effects of narcotics? I know this is far in the future and I may not live to see it, but just the fact neuroscientists are working on it makes me very, very happy.

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13 Responses

  1. Maxine D says:

    This is fascinating – what I find intriguing is that they can differentiate between emotional, social and physical pain(s)!! The possibilities of the development and application of this knowledge are huge. Thanks for sharing T.K.
    Blessings and prayers

  2. Susan says:

    This would be so great if it works. It’s so hard to function when you are in pain. You just have to do whatever works to be out of the pain. xoxoxo – Susan

  3. Emma Flesser says:

    This is very good news indeed. I am extremely glad that you did “a happy dance”, and request an immediate oil painting of this scene. I don’t know whether you’ve discussed this already, but what are your thoughts on medical marijuana? Oh, just realized, it’s likely that’s illegal in your country.

    • Knot Telling says:

      The oil painting will be on it’s way as soon as I can figure out how to get Vermeer to paint it. I’ll settle for no less!

      Medical marijuana is available here, but after something of a scandal in the Ministry of Health, it is far more restricted now than it was at first. I am not interested in it. For one thing, I never did drugs when I was a wild and rebellious young thing on a California university campus, so why start now? For another, marijuana isn’t really an analgesic anyway, as far as I know.
      But thanks for the thought, sweets. :p

  4. Dancing with you… thanks for sharing about this amazing research.

  5. Oh, it would be great! I hardly remember life before narcotics. My pain clinic is doing a great job managing my pain so I can be reasonably active (with a cane or walker). Still, if we could stop pain at the source and avoid the side effects of the narcotics, it would be terrific!

    • Knot Telling says:

      Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

      I’m glad you have a good pain clinic. I’m still resisting going to the one here, undoubtedly a residual part of my denial. I guess I’ll go when I can’t stand it any more.

      • Staying ahead of the pain by taking regular medication has worked for me. I recommend it. It seems easier to manage flare ups this way compared to when I hummed and hawed before taking anything. But you have to be comfortable with it. While I don’t feel loopy, now that I’m used to the drugs, there are other side-effects that are not easy to live with.

        I hope there is not wait list at your pain clinic if you do decide to go. All I can say is that my clinic has been fantastically helpful and kind.

  6. helensamia says:

    What great work.. Much needed

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