From the Archives: Finding the Hurt in Pain

Pain has many varieties, and is notoriously difficult to describe, but in recent years researchers have made some progress in trying to measure it. A story in the New Yorker this summer by Nicola Twilley, “The Neuroscience of Pain,” describes the quest “to capture the experience in quantifiable, objective data,” especially imaging data.

Irene_TraceyTwilley details the research life of Irene Tracey at University of Oxford, including tools in her lab’s “pain room”: “All of them have been designed with the aim of reliably producing in laboratory conditions sensations that hurt enough to mirror real life but don’t cause lasting harm, which would be unethical. A scientist hoping to gather publishable data can’t just hit someone with a hammer and hope that each blow is as hard as the last one, even if an institutional ethics committee would permit such a thing.”

Tracey wrote a piece for us for Cerebrum in December 2016, “Finding the Hurt in Pain,” reviewing what we know so far about pain, including how mood affects it, the role of placebos, and potential neuroethical issues. One big change in recent decades is how we consider chronic pain, she writes:

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From the Archives: Imaging Depression

This month, Helen Mayberg and her colleagues published a study suggesting that patterns of brain connectivity may predict which people with depression would respond best to talk therapy and which would do better with a drug. This video clip from Fox5 Atlanta describes the study, and shows what it could mean to people who need help for their depression.

Our first work with Mayberg, now a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, was more than a decade ago, when she was using first positron emission tomography and then deep brain stimulation for treatment-resistant depression (Dana grants in 2006, 2010). She spoke with us about this work in 2012:

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Discovering the Art of the Brain

New imaging techniques let scientists and doctors see what is going on inside our brains in better detail than ever before. These images help develop a better understanding of the brain and its disorders, but what if we looked at them as art?

In honor of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), Mount Sinai’s Friedman Brain Institute opened their 2017 “Art of the Brain” exhibition to celebrate the beauty of the brain. Researchers took on the role of artist and displayed brain-inspired pieces at the Grady Alexis Gallery in New York City.

artandthebrain

Brain tumors by Anthony B. Costa, Ph.D.; Holly Oemke; Leslie Schlachter; Jillian Beroza; and Joshua B. Bederon, M.D.

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Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

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President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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Think Like an Olympian

rio2016For the last two weeks, the world has been watching athletes perform with superhuman-like ability at the Summer Olympics in Rio. From the television screen, the extraordinary feats of these competitors seem purely physical; but science tells us that much of their talents rely on what’s going on in their brains. In a past interview with the Dana Foundation, seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller said:

The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best. In the Olympic Games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.

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