Brain signals can be used to detect how much pain a person is experiencing, which could overhaul how we treat certain chronic pain conditions, a new study has suggested.
The research, published in Nature Neuroscience today, is the first time a human’s chronic-pain-related brain signals have been recorded. It could aid the development of personalized therapies for the most severe forms of pain.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, implanted electrodes in the brains of four people with chronic pain. The patients then answered surveys about the severity of their pain multiple times a day over a period of three to six months. After they finished filling out each survey, they sat quietly for 30 seconds so the electrodes could record their brain activity. This helped the researchers identify biomarkers of chronic pain in the brain signal patterns, which were as unique to the individual as a fingerprint.
Next, the researchers used machine learning to model the results of the surveys. They found they could successfully predict how the patients would score the severity of their pain by examining their brain activity, says Prasad Shirvalkar, one of the study’s authors.
“The hope is that now that we know where these signals live, and now that we know what type of signals to look for, we could actually try to track them noninvasively,” he says. “As we recruit more patients, or better characterize how these signals vary between people, maybe we can use it for diagnosis.”
The researchers also found they were able to distinguish a patient’s chronic pain from acute pain deliberately inflicted using a thermal probe. The chronic-pain signals came from a different part of the brain, suggesting that it’s not just a prolonged version of acute pain, but something else entirely.
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