For scientists, the treatment and study of chronic pain is complex and presents a number of challenges, but a brain imaging technique used in a new study may help treat this condition. The brain imaging technique, known as arterial spin labeling, was used in this study to examine patterns of brain connectivity, which is essentially how brain regions interact. The researchers studied 16 adults with chronic back pain and 16 without, eventually finding that arterial spin labeling showed common networking properties of the brain are impacted by chronic pain.
The research team discovered that when a patient moved in a way that increased their back pain, the Default Mode Network, a network of brain regions, exhibited unique changes in its connections. Specifically, regions within the network became less connected with the rest of the network, while regions outside became connected with the network. The changes in brain connectivity may suggest that this is a general feature of chronic pain.
The lead author of the study states that although caution should be used when interpreting the results of the study, it does have the “potential to be an exciting discovery for anyone who suffers from chronic pain.” She explains that the research supports the use of arterial spin labeling as a tool to evaluate how the brain is affected by clinical pain and may be a step toward creating an “objective scale for measuring pain in humans.” As the study showed specific brain patterns may track the severity of the pain a patient reported, it may help predict what individuals may be more likely to experience a worsening of chronic back pain while executing maneuvers intended to induce pain.
With more than 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain, this may be an important step in diagnosing and treating this common affliction.