Brainwaves can predict future pain sensitivity

Thursday, 13 August, 2020

Brainwaves can predict future pain sensitivity

The living brain is constantly producing regular rhythmic patterns of activity, which can be compared to musical notes. Scientists from the University of Maryland and the University of Birmingham have now demonstrated that one particularly prevalent pattern of brain activity, called alpha waves, strongly relates to the body’s susceptibility or resilience to pain.

Alpha waves are just one type of electrical activity going on continually in our brains. In our sensory systems, their presence signals that a particular part of the system has ‘closed down’ for processing; when the waves are reduced, that system is ready to start working again. For most people, these oscillations occur continuously in the brain at frequencies of between 8 and 14 Hz.

The research team had previously found that people with alpha waves occurring at the higher end of this scale were more resilient to pain, while those at the lower end were more susceptible. The latest study saw the team examine whether, by taking an initial measurement of the subject’s alpha waves, it was possible to predict their reaction to pain. Their research was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The researchers tested 61 healthy participants, both men and women, aged between 21 and 42. Alpha waves were measured in each participant using electroencephalography (EEG) and then participants were each exposed to two different pain episodes. In the first of these a cream containing capsaicin — the active ingredient in chilli peppers — was applied to produce sensitised skin; in the second, participants underwent repeated applications of heat. After eight weeks, the subjects returned to repeat the experiment.

The results showed that measuring alpha waves did give a reliable indication of a person’s susceptibility or resilience to pain, both in the initial assessment and in the eight-week follow-up. The study thus suggests that alpha waves could be used to help clinicians understand patients’ susceptibility to severe pain post-surgery.

“Understanding a patient’s pain sensitivity could be really important in, for example, deciding whether an elective procedure is the best option or planning post-surgery rehabilitation,” said study co-author Dr David Seminowicz, from the University of Maryland. “Pain management drugs or techniques such as mindfulness meditation can also be used before surgery to help minimise pain.”

Co-author Dr Ali Mazaheri, from the University of Birmingham, added, “Severe pain following surgery is often also a good indicator of whether or not a patient is likely to go on to develop chronic pain. Understanding whether or not a person is at high risk of developing these symptoms will help patients and clinicians make better informed choices about the best course of treatment.”

Image credit: © Marcinski

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