In the Brain, Scientists Find New Clues to Treating Chronic Pain


Chronic Pain

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In the Brain, Scientists Find New Clues to Treating Chronic Pain Embedded electrodes capture brain activity linked to years of persistent pain Electrodes embedded in the brains of four people have captured a detailed and precise portrait of chronic pain.

The new work, published Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, points to brain regions that could be targets for future treatments, neuroscientists say, while adding to our understanding of why some people develop persistent, unyielding chronic pain. Scientists surgically implanted electrodes in the brains of four study participants who had struggled with mysterious searing pain in parts of their body for years. The researchers collected data for months, and used machine-learning models to sift through the data, ultimately pinpointing electric signals in the brain that corresponded to moments of high and low chronic pain in their study participants. The findings are a rare view of brain activity linked to chronic pain, a puzzling condition that afflicts millions of Americans.

The team found that a section of the brain just behind the forehead lighted up with a low hum of electrical activity when the study participants were feeling chronic pain. But when participants touched a hot probe, another region of the brain was active, indicating that fleeting pain from an injury operates differently from chronic pain. 

“Chronic pain is actually its own separate disease that is not simply an extension of pain in general,” said study author Dr. Prasad Shirvalkar, a pain physician and neurologist at University of California San Francisco Medical Center.  

The study is a step toward an objective, universal measure of pain in a patient, Shirvalkar said, to augment the current method available to doctors: asking patients to rank their discomfort on a scale. 

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