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Medical News Today Quotes Dr. Williams: Brain's unique 'pain fingerprint' could lead to personalized pain management

  • Pain occurs when nerve cells detect damage and transmit signals to the brain for interpretation.
  • Everyone feels pain differently, which makes it challenging for doctors to define and treat.
  • A new study, using brain scans, has found that gamma oscillations — brain waves linked to pain perception — have different timing, frequency, and location in different people.
  • This finding could lead to pain treatments based on these individual “pain fingerprints.”

People feel pain when nerve endings in the skin called nociceptors detect damage and transmit signals to the brain. The pain may be acute — sudden onset and usually short-lived and treatable by dealing with the source of the pain — or chronic, lasting for much longer and harder to treat.

But not everyone feels pain in the same way, and it can be hard for doctors to determine the severity of a person’s pain.

Often, they use a numerical scale, with the pain described from zero for no pain at all, to 10 for the worst pain imaginable. Other methods include:

  • verbal descriptor scale — the doctor asks different descriptive questions to narrow down the type of pain
  • brief pain inventory —a written questionnaire helps doctors judge the effect of a person’s pain and assess changes in pain to detect patterns
  • McGill Pain Questionnaire (MPQ) — respondents choose from three major classes of word descriptors (sensory, affective, and evaluative) to specify subjective pain experience
  • faces scale — this is mainly used for children; the doctor shows a range of expressive faces, from distressed to happy, which the child uses to indicate their pain levels.

However, all of these methods are subjective, depending on the individual’s perception of their pain.

Now, a study led by the University of Essex, United Kingdom, has used brain scans to assess gamma oscillations, which are linked to pain perception.

The researchers found that individuals show distinct gamma responses, which they refer to as “pain fingerprints.” They suggest this finding may allow tailored pain treatments directed by an individual’s gamma response.

The study is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Pain gamma oscillations unique

Lead author Dr. Elia Valentini, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology and Centre for Brain Science, University of Essex, told Medical News Today:

“Past work indicated that the perception of pain may be mediated by these fast neural oscillations we call gamma. Our work demonstrates that, even if we feel the pain as similarly intense, some of us will display these gamma oscillations triggered by painful stimuli whereas others won’t.”

“In a nutshell, we suggest that gamma oscillations are not required for pain, but when present, they are a stable and replicable feature of the individual,” he added.