US: Brain scans let doctors measure pain

11th Apr 2013

WASHINGTON, (Xinhua): Scientists may objectively measure anxiety, depression, anger
or other emotional states by using brain scans, findings published in Wednesday’s New
England Journal of Medicine showed.

“Right now, there’s no clinically acceptable way to measure pain and other emotions other
than to ask a person how they feel,” said lead author Tor Wager from the University of
Colorado Boulder.

Wager’s team used computer data-mining techniques to comb through images of 114 brains
that were taken when the subjects were exposed to multiple levels of heat, ranging from
benignly warm to painfully hot.

With the help of the computer, the researchers identified a distinct neurologic signature for
the pain and found that the signature was transferable across different people, allowing them
to predict how much pain a person was feeling, with between 90 and 100 percent accuracy.

They were also surprised to find that the signature was specific to physical pain.

Finally, they tested to see if the neurologic signature could detect when an analgesic was used
to dull the pain. The results showed that the signature registered a decrease in pain in subjects
given a painkiller.

The results of the study do not yet allow physicians to quantify physical pain, but they lay the
foundation for future work that could produce the first objective tests of pain by doctors and

To that end, Wager and his colleagues are already testing how the neurologic signature holds
up when applied to different types of pain.

“I think there are many ways to extend this study, and we’re looking to test the patterns
that we’ve developed for predicting pain across different conditions,” Wager said. “Is the
predictive signature different if you experience pressure pain or mechanical pain, or pain on
different parts of the body?”

“We’re also looking towards using these same techniques to develop measures for chronic
pain,” Wager said.

“Understanding the different contributions of different systems to chronic pain and other
forms of suffering is an important step towards understanding and alleviating human
suffering.” Wager added.

Editor: Hou Qiang


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