Brain scans allow doctors to ‘see’ pain
The days of rating your pain level on a scale of 1 to 10 at your doctor’s office may be coming to an end. New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has unlocked a way for doctors to use a functional MRI (fMRI) to ‘see’ the pain level of a patient without relying on the subjective and unreliable ‘1 to 10’ rating system.
For the study, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder performed fMRI scans on the brains of 114 volunteers while they were being exposed to varying degrees of heat from pleasantly warm to painfully hot.
An fMRI brain scan is different from a normal MRI brain scan because rather than taking a still picture of the brain (as a normal MRI does) an fMRI allows doctors to observe brain patterns in motion, similar to the difference between a still picture and a video.
The fMRI scans of the volunteers in the study showed a particular neurological signature in the brain that predicted with 90 to 100 percent accuracy whether the volunteer was experiencing painful heat or non-painful warmth. Even more encouraging is that the neurological patterns were not unique from patient to patient but seemed to be consistent for all the volunteers.
Further research will focus on finding neurological patterns for different kinds of pain like pressure pain, mechanical pain or emotional pain. Of course, more research is required before these kinds of pain predictions will be useful in a clinical setting.