Healthology – Jan 18, 2006 – Eric Sabo – The Power of Visualization – They had tried everything for their pain: prescription drugs, alternative remedies, even hypnosis. Nothing seemed to work. So, in a research lab in Oakland, California, a handful of volunteers agreed to be strapped under a giant brain scan as part of an elaborate experiment to train their mind to feel less pain.

“It’s like going to a gym,” explains Dr. Christopher deCharms, who led the experiment. “You need to exercise a specific muscle group.”

In this case, the small area of gray matter that controls our perceptions of pain. The volunteers in the study made use of a breakthrough device known as functional MRI, a type of telescope that can peer deep into the inner workings of the brain. Scientists continue to find new uses for the technology, with the greatest promise coming in spotting the early damage from stroke and Alzheimer’s.

The team that deCharms headed up is the first to find that MRI may have some use as a high-tech pain killer. With the proper training, long-term chronic pain sufferers were able to focus on the key source of their pain�represented on MRI scans by bright, reddish dots�and then change the perceptions of how they felt, for better or worse.

The results are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DeCharms, who works for a private company that sells the technology, wants to manage expectations.

“This is a potentially new area,” he says. “We don’t want to hype the results.”

Indeed, the machines themselves can run several million dollars apiece, and not every hospital has access to them. MRI imaging is routinely used to help with the early treatment of stroke, where these expensive scans can be life saving.

“This is not something to do for a headache,” says deCharms.

Still, the findings add to the growing interest of using the mind to overcome pain. Recent studies suggest that meditation, and even the much maligned placebo effect, may have considerable power at naturally relieving achy joints and sore muscles. Unlike these strategies, however, deCharms says that MRI specifically pinpoints the source of trouble.

“This is not a more elaborate way to get them to feel better,” he insists.

As part of a study, 14 chronic pain sufferers were placed under the hulking machine, which has the feel of a full body X-ray. Another 36 healthy volunteers were also put through the same tests to act as a control group. The scanning lasts an hour or so. Afterwards, everyone was provided detailed snapshots of their brain.

The region that controls pain perception is known as the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. Looking at the scans, the pain sufferers were taught to focus on this area and essentially control its activity, whether it was adding to the bright colors on the MRI scan or making them fade away. They were then put through the machine again and asked to rate their perception of pain.

When the pain sufferers deliberately caused this region to light up or go darker, their perceptions of pain went up and down as well. The exercise, explains deCharms, was not a trick.

The healthy volunteers were split into four separate groups to determine if they could control their pain trough the same techniques. Those who were purposely shown the wrong images failed to alter later MRI scans, as well as influence their feelings on pain.

DeCharms says this type of mental training is a little like playing tennis. “When you mimic the moves on the court, you get better,” he says. “If you can’t visualize what’s going on in your brain, you can’t mimic the cognitive process.”

Dr. Brian Berman, who directs the complementary medicine program at the University of Maryland, calls the MRI experiments encouraging. He was not involved in the current study, but Berman and his colleagues recently found that meditation could lessen the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

“Any way to help patients help themselves is good,” he says.

Still, the chance to hone in on the source of the problem could prove even more far reaching than a broad, mind-altering effort.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.