New study reveals brain activity behind chronic pain

‘Now that we know where these signals live, we can try to track them non-invasively’

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Chronic pain can be debilitating, but a new study points at possible future treatments.

As reported in Nature Neuroscience, study co-author Prasad Shirvalkar, who described chronic pain as a “disease unto itself,” researchers have identified the neural activity behind chronic pain, which could offer the potential to treat pain in a non-invasive manner.

Tracking brain activity is critical in figuring out where those pain signals live, according to Shirvalkar, and in developing treatments that don’t rely on opioids, which can be highly addictive.

The study involved implanting electrodes in the brains of subjects, who were experiencing chronic pain from various causes. The subjects recorded their perceptions of pain levels over several months, which researchers then correlated to the data from the electrodes.

“We successfully predicted intraindividual chronic pain severity scores from neural activity with high sensitivity using machine learning methods,” the study’s authors wrote. “Chronic pain decoding relied on sustained power changes from the OFC, which tended to differ from transient patterns of activity associated with acute, evoked pain states during a task. Thus, intracranial OFC signals can be used to predict spontaneous, chronic pain state in patients.”

About 50.2 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2022 study. That same study suggested that Americans have lost nearly $80 billion in wages due to chronic pain illnesses. Fierce Healthcare reported that women, older adults and people who live in rural areas are more likely to experience chronic pain.

Chronic pain is typically measured on a scale of pain intensity and by its effects on work-life balance.

According to The Cleveland Clinic, patients can be diagnosed with chronic pain using some combination of the following tests: