Scientists Find Chronic Pain Signal Pathways in Brain

This may be a huge step in finding new treatments
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted May 23, 2023 1:14 PM CDT
Updated May 27, 2023 12:15 PM CDT
Brain Researchers See a Path to Treating Chronic Pain
   (Getty Images / gorodenkoff)

Researchers have for the first time discovered brain signals that can indicate the amount of pain a person is experiencing, which scientists believe can lead to breakthrough treatments for chronic pain, reports the Guardian. The discovery raises the possibility of treating chronic pain with brain stimulation therapy, which is already used to treat depression and Parkinson’s. The study in Nature Neuroscience, conducted by researchers from UC San Francisco, shows that it’s possible to track and even predict recurrences of chronic pain even when sufferers are going about their daily lives. According to the CDC, up to 51% of Americans have experienced chronic pain in the last seven years. Many of the current treatments aren't very effective, and opioids are addictive; hence a search to find new ways to manage the problem.

The team, led by neurologist Prasad Shirvalkar, surgically inserted electrodes in the brains of four patients suffering from the condition for various reasons, per the Wall Street Journal. The subjects then pressed a button on a handset when an episode began, and the implants recorded activity in two regions of the brain. The subjects would fill out questionnaires with details about the pain and take snapshots of the brain readouts. Using this data, the Guardian notes that researchers crafted an algorithm that anticipated an episode of pain. The team also found that the brain experiences sudden pain differently from long-term pain.

"Chronic pain is not just a more enduring version of acute pain, it is fundamentally different in the brain," says Shirvalkar. With that knowledge, he and his team hope that they "can use the information to develop personalized brain stimulation therapies for the most severe forms of pain." Deep Brain Stimulation or DBS, is sometimes considered a treatment of last resort, but its use with Parkinson's and depression has set the stage for investigating how well it might work for chronic pain.

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The problem doesn't just impact patients—improvements in treating chronic pain could also ultimately aid practitioners in surprising ways. The NIH reported in 2019 that burnout among primary care physicians goes up when they are treating the "complex challenges" in chronic pain, as medical personnel often find themselves caught between weighing the risks of prescribing opiates and wanting to truly help their patients. (More chronic pain stories.)

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