have managed to teach people suffering chronic pain to reduce their own
discomfort simply by controlling their thoughts.
unclear how long the effect lasts, but the researchers hope that this
approach could one day be used to treat chronic pain, which affects
tens of millions of people in the United States alone and is a major
reason for sick leave.
team, led by Christopher deCharms, showed eight patients real-time
functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, of the activity in
their rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), a part of the brain
known to be involved with pain control. They asked participants to try
to increase or decrease activity in this area, by focusing on their
pain or by distracting themselves from it.
only a few training sessions, most patients could reduce the activity
in their rACC on command. These patients said that their pain lessened
by about 50%, the researchers report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.
The method also worked with healthy people involved in the study who
were given painful stimuli to their hands and asked to try and control
I would literally imagine tiny people marching in my back and scooping the pain out
Laura Tibbitts, chronic pain patient.
isn't the first time that people have been shown to be able to control
their brain activity simply through thought. Last year, Rainer Goebel,
a brain researcher at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands,
showed that people could control a table-tennis computer game simply by
watching fMRI brain scans (see 'Mental ping-pong could aid paraplegics').
But Goebel thinks deCharms's work is also important: "It's really new
that they not only let people change their own brain activity but that
they use that to treat pain patients," he says.
was struck by how the chronic pain patients were able to see the pain
and take control of it," says Sean Mackey, an anaesthesiologist at
Stanford University and co-author of the study.
patient, 31-year old Laura Tibbitts, has been suffering from chronic
pain in her shoulder blade area since she was thrown off a horse seven
years ago. She says she sometimes felt reduced pain for hours after a
session in the scanner. She can even reproduce the effect at home to
some extent, she says, although it takes a lot of concentration to do
used different strategies to reduce their rACC activity. Sometimes,
Tibbitts says, she tried to focus on areas of her body where she didn't
feel any pain. At other times, "I would literally imagine tiny people
marching in my back and scooping the pain out," she says.
test the possibility that people felt less pain simply because they
were distracted while doing the experiment, the researchers asked some
to reduce activity in a brain area not involved in pain perception. But
these patients reported no improvement in their condition.
But the authors caution that the treatment didn't work
equally well for everyone. "This means we have a lot of work to do
before this can even be talked about as a possible therapeutic tool,"
Mackey says. He adds that the rACC isn't the only area known to be
involved in pain perception. "Maybe for different people we should be
looking at different brain regions," he says.
the case, the most important thing for Tibbitts was to see that chronic
pain is real and can be controlled. "It was very validating and
empowering," Tibbitts says.
team is currently investigating the long-term effects of repeated fMRI
training. DeCharms's company Omneuron, a biotech group in Menlo Park,
California, has patents pending on real-time fMRI-based training