How the brain experiences pain – brain experiences pHow the brain experiences pain

Pain’s basic purpose is as a warning message for the body: that hurts, so stop it. When pain becomes chronic, though, it can seem utterly senseless, plaguing people for extended periods for no apparent reason. Researchers are constantly studying pain in hopes that a deeper understanding might lead to more effective prevention and treatment of pain.

Research examines pain responses in infants

Until recently, it was believed that babies didn’t experience pain in the same way as adults. Indeed, some people suggested that babies’ brains weren’t developed enough to experience pain, as explained in an article from the University of Oxford:

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“As recently as the 1980s it was common practice for babies to be given neuromuscular blocks but no pain relief medication during surgery. In 2014 a review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care highlighted that although such infants

However, the researchers who published this article reevaluated this thinking. Babies, aged between one and six days, were allowed to fall asleep inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. The babies were then prodded on the bottom of the foot with a retractable rod. This produced a sensation similar to being prodded by a pencil – not quite painful, but enough to produce visible results in the brain’s pain response areas. Adults were then put through the same test.

Not only did the babies’ brains display a similar pain response as the adults’ brains, but the results suggested that babies actually have a lower pain threshold than adults. This means that a baby will experience a sensation as pain more quickly than an adult will. This research will likely have far-reaching and profound effects, since it will lead to more babies being given the proper pain relief medications before painful procedures.

The emotional side of pain 

Anyone who’s experienced long-lasting or severe pain knows that it can easily elicit an emotional response. Now science has proven this as well. Researchers at the TUM School of Medicine gave painful heat stimuli to participants’ hands. The stimuli varied in intensity. Participants were asked to rate their pain on a scale of one to a hundred.

After a few minutes, the participants began to experience changes in pain, even when the pain stimulus remained unchanged. The pain sensation became detached from the pain stimulus. This suggests that the pain sensation changed from a perception process to a more emotional process. In fact, the researchers watched the brain activity in participants experiencing longer-lasting pain, and the emotional areas of the brain became active.

These same researchers conducted another experiment that showed anticipation, as well as duration, can affect pain perception. Participants in this experiment were given painful laser pulses on two areas of the back of the hand. Then the participants rated how strongly they’d perceived the pain stimuli. Creams were then applied to both areas of the back of the hand. Neither cream had pain-relieving properties, but the participants were told that one of the creams had a painrelieving effect.

After this, the participants rated the stimuli as significantly lower on the area with the allegedly pain-reliving cream. Not only were the participants’ verbal ratings affected, but the second run of this experiment (using the two creams) triggered a different brain activity pattern.

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Pain relief may be related to emotions, too

A study from Ohio State University examined the effects of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. College students viewed photos selected to elicit an emotion response. Each photo was rated on a scale of negative to positive, as well as on a scale of how much of an emotional response it elicited (no emotion to extreme emotion).

The participants who had taken acetaminophen rated the photos less extremely, compared to participants who had taken placebos. In other words, acetaminophen caused positive photos to be seen in a less positive way, while negative photos were seen in a less negative way. The emotional response was dulled.

A follow-up study was done, with an added element. Participants were asked to rate how much blue they saw in each photo, in case acetaminophen dulled all perception rather than dulling the emotions. The judgements of how much blue each photo had stayed constant, whether or not participants had taken acetaminophen. This suggests that the drug impacts pain and emotions, but not all perception, giving more credence to the idea that pain and emotion are closely linked.

The effects of long-term pain on brain function

York University researchers used eye-tracking technology to see how different people respond to “pain words,” such as ache, agony, distress, and pain. The eye-tracker measures eye-gaze patterns with extreme precision. Professor Joel Katz, Canada Research Chair in Health Psychology and co-author of this study, explained the results, stating:

“We now know that people with and without chronic pain differ in terms of how, where and when they attend to pain-related words. This is a first step in identifying whether the attentional bias is involved in making pain more intense or more salient to the person in pain.”

Additionally, scientists from the University of Berne have discovered a neuron modification in a specific area of the brain in mice with chronic pain. This, according to the researchers, is “pain memory.” The presence of this pain memory gave the mice more of an increased number of nerve impulses in these specific cells, which led to an increased pain perception. These researchers found a way to alter the modified pain memory cells in the mice. This makes them hopeful that, eventually, drugs might be developed to create the same change in humans, thereby lowering the increased painperception that results from chronic pain.

As researchers and scientists study pain and its mechanisms, a deeper understanding of pain and its effects will, hopefully, lead to more effective pain management techniques in the future.

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