Monday, June 8, 2009

SUNDAY TIMES: Scientists discover way of measuring pain

Studies of brain imaging technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), shows changes in brain of sufferers

by Jonathan Leake, Sunday Times.

Now we really can feel your pain. Scientists have for the first time discovered a way of using brain scans to measure the true depth of a person’s suffering.

Until now, the main way of assessing pain is to ask people what they are feeling, as there has never been a way of peering inside the brain to see what nerves are being activated.

However, a series of studies involving brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown distinct differences between the brains of people in pain and others who are not.

“Pain seems to increase the blood flow to certain parts of the brain, roughly in proportion to the amount of pain felt, and we can measure that activation in a brain scan,” said Irene Tracey, professor of anaesthetic science at Oxford University and director of its centre for fMRI and the brain.

Such findings suggest that pain could one day be measured objectively, a change that would have widespread legal and social implications.

In accident compensation cases, for example, lawyers might be able to order reports on just how much pain a victim was suffering. Doctors might also be able to monitor the exact benefits of drug regimes and treatments.

What Tracey and others have found is that the brain possesses what they call a “pain matrix”, with such feelings typically activating more than a dozen parts of the brain.

This is in contrast to other senses such as vision or hearing, where stimuli are generally fed to just one part of the brain for interpretation.

Tracey, who described her research at the Cheltenham science festival yesterday, said the aim was to build a generalised model of how pain activated the brain, collated from scans of many different people. Then individuals suffering chronic pain could be compared with the model to give a measure of the type and level of pain they were in.

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