Scientists in the United States have successfully taught eight patients to reduce pain from injuries by showing them live scans of their brains while they performed a set of mental exercises.
The findings, from a team at Stanford University in California, have opened up the possibilities for treating chronic pain, which often responds poorly to standard therapy and leaves patients suffering throughout their entire lives.
The study suggests that it may be possible to train people to change the way in which the pain centres of the brain process painful stimuli, making the perception of pain less intense.
Sean Mackey, who led the research, said: “Pain has a huge impact on individual patients, their families and society. We could change people’s lives. However, significantly more science and testing must be done before this can be considered a treatment for chronic pain.”[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Dr Mackey’s team used a new scanning technique, known as real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, to capture live images of activity in a part of the brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, that handles painful stimuli.
As the patients watched the scans, they undertook mental exercises designed to alter brain activity and reduce pain. The goal was to train the brain to process pain in a different way, so that the patients would experience it less severely.
The scans allowed the subjects to see what effect their thoughts were having on a small region of the brain, helping them to concentrate on changing its activity.
“We asked them to think about changing the meaning of the pain,” Dr Mackey said.
“Instead of thinking of it as a terrible experience, to think of it as something relatively pleasant.”
Over time, subjects showed an increased ability to modulate their pain.
Dr Mackey said that it was still unclear how the patients had achieved this, but that it had worked for all eight subjects, with five reporting that their pain had reduced in intensity by 50 per cent or more.
“We really don’t know how anyone controls their brain to perform an action,” Dr Mackey said. Laura Tibbitt, 31, who has suffered from back pain since a riding accident seven years ago, said that her symptoms had reduced considerably since she took part in the study.
“I’d think of little people on my back digging out the pain, or I’d think of snowflakes,” she said.
“The goal was to exercise your brain, to retrain your brain. Sometimes I felt like I had made a change in my brain.
“The pain was never completely gone, but it was better.”
The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study involved a series of controls to check that the imaging process was having a direct impact on the patients’ pain, and that their improved perception was not the result of a placebo effect. “One of the questions that always comes up is, ‘Did we just design the world’s most expensive placebo?’,” Dr Mackey said.
In one control group, volunteers were asked to try to control pain without being scanned, and in another they were scanned but not shown the images.
A third group was shown images of a part of the brain that does not process pain, while a fourth was shown images of another person’s brain.
None of the control groups showed an improvement in pain symptoms, while all the patients in the study group had benefits.
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