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November 06, 2013

Brain Scan Database Aims to Accelerate Chronic Pain Research

by Elizabeth Lee

Many people around the world suffer from chronic pain - from pain in the joints to migraines to abdominal pain. Many scientists now believe that kind of pain - in whatever part of the body - has a common connection to the brain. The University of California Los Angeles is now developing an international database of brain images of hundreds of chronic pain patients. So far, they include people from North America and Europe. The goal: to accelerate research and develop better ways to treat chronic pain.

Carolyn Crow is no stranger to pain. “Sometimes I’ll just have a background dull ache, you know, all the time. Sometimes there’s cramping that’s so bad that it’ll just kind of almost double you over in pain.”  

It is a chronic pain caused by irritable bowel syndrome, an illness that currently has no cure.

UCLA Gastroenterologist Emeran Mayer said this disease is not the only cause of chronic pain in the body. And often patients often can only suffer. “One of the big things in pain research has been the failure to really come up with major breakthroughs in treatments.”

In hopes of finding new treatment options, Mayer is working on a new field of study that links chronic pain to biological changes in the brain. The Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress at UCLA serves as the main hub for the first standardized database for brain imaging connected to chronic pain.   

“So I think a lot of people now agree with the concept that chronic pain is a brain disease. It may start anywhere in the body when you have acute pain, but once it becomes a chronic pain syndrome it does become a brain disease,” said Mayer.

Kirsten Tillisch, a professor in UCLA’s Division of Digestive Diseases, said the database allows doctors to take a more holistic approach in chronic pain research. “One of the failures of Western medicine and I think our research approaches is how we diced up the human body and how we’ve diced up research into these little silos that work very independently.”

Mayer said Western scientists are starting to look more closely at how mind, body and environment effect each other, and his database is one example.

“Big data, medicine, and analysis is essentially doing the same thing the ancient Chinese did by observation. We do it by observing and analyzing very large data sets and trying to see are there patterns in there that hang together by biologically,” said Mayer.

And Tillisch said new technology makes this possible. “You know when I started this type of work ten years ago there, we didn’t have computing power to do this type of analysis. In the brain alone in the last decade it’s really exploded what we could look at.”

The database currently holds the brain scans of more than 500 patients from North America and Europe, and UCLA is in the process of acquiring more. Mayer hopes to eventually include brain images of people from Asian countries, plus other biological markers that can help researchers understand pain and find treatments that can help improve the quality of life for patients such as Carolyn Crow.

“As a patient receiving care it makes you feel much better also to realize the doctor is treating you as a person and a whole being with many complicated parts,” said Crow.

Images of Crow’s brain also will be in the database. She hopes doctors might find a cure one day for her chronic pain.