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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 13:50 GMT
Brain scans help think away pain
Man holding his head
The technique could help people cope with serious pain
It may really be a matter of mind over matter - scientists suggest it is possible to control brain activity to reduce the pain you feel.

Stanford University researchers found seeing brain scans and using mental exercises helped reduce pain.

A UK pain expert said the work backed other studies which suggested changing how people thought about pain could reduce its effects.

The research is in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.


Thirty-six volunteers took part in the study.

I'd think of little people on my back digging out the pain, or I'd think of snowflakes
Laura Tibbitt, who took part in the study

Heat was applied to their palms, with the temperature for each person set depending on what they found painful.

One group was placed inside a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner where they were able to watch their brain activity on a moment-by-moment basis.

They were then shown "live" action images of their rostral anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain responsible for processing pain.

Next, they were given various mental strategies to try to train the brain to respond to pain differently, such as being asked to think of it as a relatively pleasant experience.

Over time, the eight people who went through this training procedure showed an increased ability to modulate their response to pain.

Other groups were either shown no scans at all - and just given behavioural techniques to help them cope with pain, or shown scans of different areas of the brain, or those showing other people's pain responses.

People in these groups showed no changes in how they responded to pain.

'Brain exercise'

Dr Sean Mackey, who led the research, said the study findings offered great hope for people who suffer chronic pain.

"We could change people's lives.

"However, significantly more science and testing must be done before this can be considered a treatment for chronic pain."

He said it was not clear how people had controlled their brain activity, but added: "We really don't know how anyone controls their brain to perform an action."

Laura Tibbitt, 31, who took part in the study, has chronic back pain caused by a horseback riding accident seven years ago, said she used different thoughts to decrease the pain while watching her brain scans.

She said: "I'd think of little people on my back digging out the pain, or I'd think of snowflakes.

"The goal was to exercise your brain, to retrain your brain. Sometimes I felt like I had made a change in my brain. The pain was never completely gone, but it was better."

Dr Beverley Collett, president of the British Pain Society, said: "In some ways, this supports some of what we are already doing in pain treatment, using cognitive therapy to change how people think about their pain.

"And we know psychological treatments do help people manage their pain."

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