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Doctors Use Brainwaves to Objectively Measure Chronic Pain

2023

Neurologists have made significant progress in utilizing deep brain stimulation to measure and predict chronic pain intensity. Published in Nature Neuroscience, the study identified distinct brainwave patterns that objectively differentiate chronic pain from acute pain.

Chronic pain poses a challenge for doctors due to its subjective nature, but by analyzing brain signals, neurologists successfully predicted pain levels. The research aims to develop personalized brain stimulation therapy, offering relief to the 51.6 million Americans suffering from chronic pain.

Statistics from JAMA Network Open reveal that chronic pain rates rival those of prevalent health conditions such as diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure. Understanding how the brain processes acute and chronic pain is crucial for improving treatment outcomes.

The study involved four individuals with uncontrollable long-term pain, including stroke survivors and a phantom limb syndrome patient. Deep brain stimulation, typically used for neurological conditions, was employed for chronic pain for the first time. Electrodes were implanted in pain-associated areas of the brain—the anterior cingulate cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex.

Participants reported pain severity and quality over three to six months and triggered the electrode implants to record brain activity. Using these recordings and survey responses, a computer generated pain severity scores, with the orbitofrontal cortex playing a significant role in developing personalized neural signatures.

Differences between chronic and acute pain emerged, with changes in the orbitofrontal cortex strongly associated with chronic pain and the anterior cingulate cortex more related to acute pain. This highlights that chronic pain involves distinct brain circuits, going beyond being a prolonged version of acute pain.

Understanding these neurological distinctions offers hope for developing targeted brain stimulation therapies for severe discomfort, particularly in cases resulting from strokes and traumatic brain injuries.

While the study's results are fascinating, caution is advised due to the small sample size. Researchers plan to expand the study in phase two with more patients to validate the approach further. Surgical brain implants come with inherent risks, necessitating careful consideration. However, a future vision includes small wearable devices that can track brainwaves, revolutionizing pain management.

Objective measures for pain assessment and treatment hold immense potential, as they address the subjectivity and unequal treatment of pain. This study's pursuit of such measures has the power to transform the field of pain management.

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