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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January, 2005, 12:00 GMT
Pain used to uncover brain secret
Woman in pain
Torture is being used to help scientists understand how the brain works
Volunteers are to be 'burnt' by scientists to see if faith eases pain.

Oxford University scientists will carry out experiments on hundreds of people in a bid to understand how the brain works during states of consciousness.

One aspect of the two-year study will involve followers of both religious and secular beliefs being burnt to see if they can handle more pain than others.

Some volunteers will be shown religious symbols such as crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary during the tests.

How scientists plan to torture volunteers
Gel - A gel containing chilli can be applied to the back of the hand to simulate a burning sensation
Heat-pad - A pad which can reach up to 60C will be put against the skin

Researchers believe the study may improve understanding of faith, how robust it is and how easily it can be dislodged.

The team from the newly-formed Centre for Science of the Mind also want to include people with survival techniques in the experiments, which may help the special forces easily identify people with high pain thresholds.

Volunteers will have a gel containing chilli powder or heat-pad applied to the back of their hand to simulate pain.


A team of neurologists, pharmacologists and anatomists will then analyse how people react by using brain scans.

Another part of the research involves tests using anaesthetic, to see what effect it has on the brain and why some people need higher doses to make them unconscious.

Baroness Greenfield, director of the centre, said 20 years ago scientists had shied away from studying the brain in such away but that was now changing.

"We want to find out what the brain is doing, how it is working when we are having feelings and most importantly of all when we are conscious.

Christians feel pain just like everyone else, but many would say that their belief in a God who cares and the promises of the Bible are a huge comfort in difficult times
Church of England spokesman

"I am not promising we are going to solve the problem, I don't think we are.

"But I think we are going to get more of an insight."

Centre deputy director Toby Collins added: "The reason we are using pain is that it is easily standardised but varies greatly between individuals.

"The pain matrix is not fully understood yet."

Dr Alison Gray, a spokeswoman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "The experience of pain depends on biological factors such as the amount of tissue damage and release of natural pain killers - endorphins - in the brain.

"We know anecdotally that religious believers can tolerate great pain when there is a specific purpose, and I would speculate that this would operate via endorphin release.

"Religious practices such as prayer and meditation release endorphins and would in theory increase the pain threshold.

"It will be interesting to see what these trials show, it may be that the specific purpose of bearing the pain is missing, if so I would expect the tests would be inconclusive."

But the Church of England said it was possible religion could be of help.

A spokesman said: "Pain is a fact of life, whatever your beliefs. Christians feel pain just like everyone else, but many would say that their belief in a God who cares and the promises of the Bible are a huge comfort in difficult times."

A neurologist explains how the research will work

Unlocking the brain's secrets
27 Jul 03 |  Health
The appliance of neuroscience
25 Jul 03 |  Education
3D brain mappers scan thousands
06 Dec 01 |  Science/Nature

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