Brain’s unique “pain fingerprint” may help pain management

Brain’s unique “pain fingerprint” may help pain management

When nerve cells notice damage, they experience pain and send signals to the brain for interpretation.

Because everyone experiences pain differently, it is difficult for doctors to identify and manage it.

Gamma oscillations and brain waves associated with pain perception have variable timing, frequencies, and locations in various individuals, according to a recent study that used brain scans to gather its data.

This discovery might result in pain management strategies based on these unique “pain fingerprints.”

When nociceptors, which are nerve endings in the skin, notice damage and send messages to the brain, people experience pain. The pain may be chronic, lasting for a considerably longer time and being more difficult to treat, or acute, abrupt onset, typically short-lived, and manageable by addressing the source of the pain.

However, not everyone experiences pain in the same way, making it challenging for medical professionals to gauge how much someone is hurting.

They frequently employ a number scale, with zero denoting no pain at all and ten denoting the most excruciating suffering possible. Other strategies include:

  • The doctor uses a verbal descriptor scale to specify the type of pain by asking several descriptive questions.
  • short pain inventory: a written questionnaire that aids medical professionals in determining the impact of a patient’s pain and tracking changes in pain to look for patterns.
  • Respondents to the McGill Pain Questionnaire (MPQ) select three main categories of word descriptors (sensory, affective, and evaluative) to describe their subjective pain experience.
  • Faces scale: This is mostly used for kids. The doctor displays a range of emotive faces, from sad to pleased, and the kids use them to convey how much pain they are in.

How does the brain register pain?

Senior lecturer at the University of Essex’s Centre for Brain Science and lead author Dr. Elia Valentini said the following to us:

The sense of pain may be mediated by these fast brain oscillations known as gamma, according to previous research. Our research shows that, despite the fact that we all experience pain to a similar degree, some of us will exhibit these gamma oscillations in response to painful stimuli while others won’t.

In essence, he said, “we propose that gamma oscillations are not necessary for pain, but that they constitute a stable and repeatable property of the individual when present.

What reactions does the brain have to pain?

Seventy volunteers underwent pain testing for the researchers. The average age of those who participated in the study was 24, and they were all in good health. Males made up the majority.

They kept track of the outcomes of two independent studies. In the first, there were 22, and there were 48 in the second.

In the first experiment, subjects were repeatedly exposed to touch and pain stimuli on the right hand’s back twice, two weeks apart. A Tm: YAG laser produced the pain stimuli. Participants graded both stimuli on a scale of 0 to 10.

In the second experiment, a Nd: YAG laser used to deliver high- and low-intensity pain stimuli to subjects. Each subject was exposed to 80 stimuli of high and 80 of low intensity. On a scale of zero for no discomfort to one hundred for the most manageable pain, they were asked to rate them.

In all studies, individuals wore an electrode cap while being exposed to the stimuli, which produced electroencephalogram (EEG) data from which the gamma responses were analysed.

How is pain quantified?

Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and pain management expert who founded the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute’s Centre for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine who was not engaged in this study, provided the following explanation to us:

“An unpleasant sensory or emotional experience connected to, or similar to, actual or potential tissue injury is referred to as pain. It is a “experience,” not a “sensation.” As a result, it is always unique, subjective, and personal. The fact that gamma oscillations differ greatly from person to person is therefore not surprising.

In addition to the fact that the pattern of gamma oscillations varied between individuals, the researchers also discovered that it did not change for each person who underwent the repeat trial.

“Our work demonstrates that there is a remarkable stability: Participants with high/low gamma activity and high/low pain ratings in the previous recording had high/low gamma activity and high/low pain ratings two weeks later,” said Dr. Valentini.

This could be beneficial for pain management, according to Dr. Williams: “Interestingly, the findings are reproducible within an individual, and that may have future implications regarding objective measures of pain and objective measures to assess pain interventions/treatments, particularly in the short term.”

Dr. Valentini cautioned, nonetheless, that the significance of gamma oscillations for pain processing may be greatly exaggerated. It serves as a timely warning that, even when a large group-level association is replicated by multiple research, we might still be duped into interpreting the results as causative.

Do the results have any clinical application?

Dr. Valentini summarised the findings by saying, “In a nutshell, we suggest that gamma oscillations are not necessary for pain, but when present, they are a stable and repeatable feature of the individual.”

As Dr. Valentini said, “Our work resonates with the idea of personalized medicine whereby clinicians may focus on the specific individual’s biological patterns to achieve faster and better diagnosis or treatment.” Their findings may result in more personalized pain management.

Despite the fact that there are no obvious therapeutic implications of our findings, he explained that they “pave the way to a more precise assessment of neural responses mediating the experience of pain.”

Dr. Williams concurred that there was cause for hope. He explained to us that “reproducible” in the trials indicated that subjects’ results were consistent across tests conducted two weeks apart.

That might not be the case if tests are conducted two months or two years apart, or if social, psychological, or biological circumstances have changed in the interim. Dr. Williams continued, “If changes take place under various circumstances, that might imply that the person’s ‘fingerprint’ can change over time (or if circumstances change).”

“That gives us cause for hope because it implies that their experience—the pain they feel—can be diminished, enhanced, or completely erased with the proper mix of therapies. He said, “Chronic pain does not have to last ‘forever’.

Dr. Valentini intends to conduct additional research because, in his words, “my colleagues and I believe that gamma and other brain oscillations are an important area of investigation for pain neuroscience. Maybe some of us will be able to repeat similar studies in individuals with acute or chronic pain, better addressing the therapeutic applicability of our research.


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