Brain Training Puts Big Hurt on Intense Pain: Volunteers Learn to Translate Imaging Data into Neural-Control Tool

By Bower, B. | Science News, December 17, 2005 | Go to article overview

Brain Training Puts Big Hurt on Intense Pain: Volunteers Learn to Translate Imaging Data into Neural-Control Tool


Bower, B., Science News


Preliminary evidence indicates that people can quell either temporary or chronic physical pain by learning to use their minds to reduce activity in a key brain area.

Brain-imaging technology now enables individuals to use mental exercises to control a neural region that contributes to pain perception, say neuroscientist Sean C. Mackey of Stanford University and his colleagues.

Both healthy volunteers and chronic-pain patients "learned to control their brains and, through that, their pain," Mackey holds. "However, significantly more testing must be done before this can be considered a treatment for chronic pain."

The new findings appear in the Dec. 20 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mackey's team studied 32 healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 37. First, each volunteer reported when an adjustable heat pulse applied to a leg produced pain that he or she rated as 7 out of 10, with 10 being equivalent to "the worst pain imaginable." Brain imaging of participants, using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, showed that this level of pain was accompanied by pronounced blood flow--a sign of intense neural activity--in an area called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex.

Eight of the volunteers then underwent brain training. Each reclined in an fMRI machine that visually displayed activity changes in the person's rostral anterior cingulate cortex. A virtual flame dimmed as activity fell and brightened as activity surged.

While watching this display for 39 minutes, participants tried various mental strategies both to increase and to decrease their brain activity during brief periods of heat-pulse application. …

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