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Researchers closer to developing a ‘pain-o-meter’
September 13th, 2011
06:07 PM ET

Researchers closer to developing a ‘pain-o-meter’

Your arm hurts, but it's difficult for someone else to say just how much it really hurts. Scientists have been searching for a way to measure pain and new research suggests they are getting closer.

Researchers at Stanford University trained a computer algorithm to interpret magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data of the brain and determine the presence of pain, according to a new study published Tuesday in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Researchers applied heat directly to the forearms of 8 study participants.  The subjects  reported a pain score of 7 out of 10 pain, when the temperature their skin was exposed to reached about 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the participants were undergoing this heat exposure, MRI scanners tracked their brain activity.  Then the computer compared data when participants were undergoing MRIs without experiencing any pain.

The computer algorithms effectively learned how to recognize the difference between pain and non-pain in the human brain.

When presented with additional sets of brain scans from sixteen new participants, the computer algorithm correctly identified about 80% of the time which brains were experiencing pain, and which were not.

Researchers have long known that pain registers on MRI scans, but having a computer algorithm positively predict the difference between a brain with pain and a brain without pain is new ground.

"I had been convinced for many years that the very subjective nature of pain would preclude it from being able to characterize a pattern of brain activity that would extend across other individuals to discriminate pain or not pain," says Dr. Sean Makey, a senior author of the study. "I was really surprised to see that you could."

The researchers behind this study have already started another, similar study, and with a larger number of participants.

The technology seems to work in a controlled laboratory setting, but in real-world situations there are lots of complicating factors. For example, other types of pain in other parts of the body may register differently, and this study does not attempt to measure varying degrees of pain. And those suffering from chronic pain would not be able to provide a baseline pain-free brain scan for comparison.

"I'm hoping that we will see this technology as an objective biomarker of treatment responsiveness for clinical trials when testing a particular therapy or drug," says Makey. "This will augment the patient's recorded pain, and give us a more objective measure of how we're actually impacting their pain and their pain system."


soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. TF14901

    So, what do you do when you have someone with Autism who won't be able to hold still for an MRI?

    September 14, 2011 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KateB

      Usually children or patients who cannot hold still are sedated/twilight sedation.

      September 15, 2011 at 08:44 | Report abuse |
  2. michael

    Quick !! Get this equipment to the pill mills & pain clinics in South Florida for human trials........Next thing you know the the Doctor's and their drug addicted patients will find a way to get that paid for with our tax money only to find out that everyone suffers from some level of pain all the time everyday.

    September 14, 2011 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • wave

      Not everyone suffers pain. I am a pain patient and I am not addicted to pain meds. You are an ass Michael!

      September 14, 2011 at 14:37 | Report abuse |
  3. kim

    Oh great, just what we need! More ways for doctors to arrogantly dismiss their patients and to tell us that we aren't really hurting when we are! I've no doubt that doctors and insurance companies will use this against the patients, not to help them.

    September 14, 2011 at 15:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jimmy Crack Corn

    The more hi-tech medical equipment is used on you the more expensive your medical bill will be. No thank you pain-o-meter, I'd rather stick with the old fashion "This hurts!" But of course your Doc will find an excuse to use it anyway.

    September 14, 2011 at 19:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JeramieH

      Every modern medical advance is initially expensive. So I guess you don't accept the results of any medical research at all?

      September 14, 2011 at 20:46 | Report abuse |
    • 85fr15

      JeramieH – Medical technology and advancement is expensive and stays expensive...many times that is the problem. Things in the medical field rarely drop in price as they do in the consumer world. Remember how expensive calculators originally were? How about BETA or VHS recorders? Calculators? How about new technology TV's? All had there peak in pricing and eventually came down in price after a period of extended development. On the other hand, anything in the medical field as in the insurance industry always finds a way to stay expensive. I am all for R/D but it's the inflated costs after the R/D which remain high well after the technology is is place.

      September 15, 2011 at 07:55 | Report abuse |
  5. Winky

    Ok, if I put that meter in my rear-end, would that tell me how much I bother people ?

    September 15, 2011 at 05:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Chronic Pain sufferer

    I'm a pain patient for 30+ years and have never abused my pain meds. I take 160mg oxycontin twice a day and 60mg of methadone twice a day, this has been the same doses for 13 years. I don't get high from these meds due to all the pain I have.
    I've had 12 major back surgeries and have a 16 lead spinal cord stimulator implant. All from an infection in my epidural space from S1 through T10, it left the dural sac that contains the spinal cord extremely scared. I don't have much soft tissue around my nerves, it's more like sandpaper. They also terminated all my facet nerves, both sides from T10 through S1 because the pain couldn't be controlled with drugs. My pain increases dramaticly with activity, so a MRI to measure me for pain levels wouldn't work just lying still. Most of the pain patients I'm around pains increase drasticly with activity, so much for being still for a MRI. This article seems to be more for simple pain injuries, not for medical nightmares like myself.

    September 16, 2011 at 00:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. CheerfulHeart

    When "it hurts" leads to someone becoming unable to work, it would be nice to have a meter that confirms this. I describe my fibromyalgia pain and fatigue as being the same as one experiences with severe influenza. When people have the flu they can't work until they feel better. Chronic pain patients never feel better. Imagine the ultimate savings in insurance fraud, disability claims and other taxpayer supported assistance if there was a meter to determine if a patient is lying or exaggerating? Many claimants do, and many chronic pain sufferers are accused of this. A pain meter would remove all doubt.

    September 16, 2011 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. pmk1953

    If I ever woke up in the morning and nothing hurt, I'd have to buy a newspaper so I could check if my name was in the obituaries. Arthritis gives you that outlook.

    September 16, 2011 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.