Tracked with pain

Today’s Nature has an excellent piece about an increasing and currently not well-researched trend for fMRI brain scan ‘neurofeedback’ treatments, where the patient is shown a visual representation of the activity of a certain brain area in the hope of learning to control it.

In this case, the big idea is that a patient with chronic pain is shown real-time activity in their anterior cingulate cortex, an area in the frontal lobe associated with the ‘unpleasantness’ of pain (rather than just its physical sensation), and they can see when they doing something to successfully reduce the activity and can try and learn to do it reliably.

The article looks at the work of Sean Mackey who researches the area but is appropriately skeptical about a number of companies who have recently sprung up offering this as a treatment, despite the lack of firm evidence.

As you may recall, this premature commercialisation is a bit of a pattern with fMRI research, as you can also buy the services of companies offering ‘lie detection’ and ‘neuromarketing’ despite a similar lack of evidence for their usefulness.

However, the piece also looks more generally at the neuroscience of pain which is, if you’ll excuse the pun, becoming a hot area, both as the understanding of pain moves away from the idea that it happens ‘in the body’ to the idea that it is handled by numerous brain circuits, each which may be involved if different aspects of the experience and our behavioural reaction to it.

In some of his other work, Mackey’s laboratory has used fMRI to explore these connections between pain processing and cognitive processes. Fear of pain, for example, can increase the pain itself, and Mackey’s group studied some of the brain regions involved in this anticipation. In another study he showed that watching someone else in pain activates brain areas that are fairly distinct from those active during one’s own pain. And in unpublished work he has found that romantic love can lessen the experience of pain. Mackey says these connections demonstrate how strong an influence conscious thought may have over pain processing.

Link to Nature article ‘Shooting pain’.

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