A Changing Brain is Good for Pain

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Fluctuations in brain activity help people resist and cope with the sensation of pain.
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People respond differently to pain and pain treatment; finding out why may be the key to unlocking better, more personalized treatment strategies.
Brain activity is highly variable and fluctuates with each passing moment. This is because each person’s brain is inherently unique and these fluctuations vary depending on the individual and their experience.

It has been hypothesized that inherent brain signal variability can influence how people respond to and process a diverse range of stimuli and also how well people can perform a challenging task. A new study by Krembil Senior Scientist Dr. Karen Davis, her graduate student Anton Rogachov and other members of her research team demonstrates that this variability may also contribute to how individuals sense and cope with pain.

The team used an advanced technique called “resting state” functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to visualize brain activity variability and relate it to each person’s pain sensitivity and their ability to do a cognitive task when in pain. After analyzing the activity signals in specific brain regions that are associated with pain perception, the team found that those with highly variable signals were less sensitive to the additive effects of repeated exposure to painful stimuli. Moreover, while experiencing pain, these individuals outperformed those with less brain signal variability in a set of cognitive tasks, which included tests that measure how quickly subjects respond to numerical problems.

“Our study is the first to demonstrate that variable activity in specific brain regions reflects a mechanism to process nociceptive signals and cope with pain,” says Dr. Davis. “It also reveals the potential to use fMRI as a predictive tool for pain tolerance and coping with everyday activities while in pain. This could help clinicians identify those that are likely to be vulnerable to chronic pain—the most common cause of long-term disability—and to intervene earlier with personalized therapeutic strategies for pain management.”

This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, the University of Toronto and the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.

Rogachov A, Cheng JC, Erpelding N, Hemington KS, Crawley AP, Davis KD. Regional brain signal variability: a novel indicator of pain sensitivity and coping. Pain. 2016 Nov. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000665.