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Study Seeks Out Brain's 'Pain Locator'

The 'where' component turns out to be trickier than thought, scientists say

WEDNESDAY, March 28, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Multiple regions of the brain are involved in determining the location of pain, a new study finds.

The finding, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, may help lead to improved methods of treating pain.

In many cases, it can difficult for patients to pinpoint the actual location of pain, the researchers noted. For example, pain from a nerve injury is often felt in areas of the body other than the actual injury site. Or an injury on one side of the body may cause pain on both sides of the body.

"The scientific understanding of spatial aspects of pain is so limited that patients with widespread pain may get sent to a psychiatrist rather than a pain clinic," neuroscientist Robert Coghill, senior researcher on the study, said in a prepared statement.

"This study expands our notion of where in the brain the 'where' component of pain is processed -- it's not as simple as we thought. Brain mechanisms that process the location of pain now appear to be highly similar to those that process the location for hearing and vision," Coghill said.

In this study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity in 12 healthy people, ages 22 to 39, while heat devices were aimed at specific points on their legs.

It has long been thought that a few brain regions, including the primary somatosensory cortex, are involved in determining pain location. But this study found that other areas of the brain -- known as the medial pain system and thought to be involved in the emotional aspects of pain -- are also used to determine pain location.

"This was very surprising. Pain isn't well understood, and better treatments are needed. This shift in direction will be important to move research and treatments in the right direction," study lead author Dr. Yoshitetsu Oshiro, said in a prepared statement.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about pain.

SOURCE: Wake Forest University, news release, March 27, 2007
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