Imaging Imagery

The latest issue of Technology Review contains several fascinating articles (as usual), but one in particular struck me as directly relevant: researchers are developing better ways to visually image pain and how we modulate suffering.


One of the tangible benefits to being an MIT grad is my monthly subscription to Technology Review. The magazine contains a few nuggets in every issue on the impact of technology on healthcare, or as I call it, “using our powers for good.” The most recent issue features discussions on the “defeating” aging, how neuroscience and artificial intelligence combine to help us understand the brain, and a thought-provoking article titled, simply, “Seeing Your Pain.” Writer Emily Singer reports on her experience using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to visualize her back pain and work toward reducing it with the aid of imagery techniques. Essentially what Christopher deCharms at Omneuron has done is develop a potentially more effective neurofeedback platform. Those familiar with EEG neurofeedback know that children (and adults) with ADHD can use computer-aided visual representations of electric brain wave data to learn what inattention and distraction “looks like” and to enhance focusing improvement tasks. To take it to the next step, MRI can show us pictures of what the brain, and blood flow, looks like at any point in time. What fMRI does is even more spectacular – we can now see, in real time, blood flow and brain structure changes as we experience pain, relief, happiness, sadness, and so on. What Omneuron’s software can do is take the fMRI images and represent them to the patient in the scanner (via special goggles) as fires burning on the beach in locations that correspond roughly to actual brain activity locations. The greater the signal intensity, the brighter and bolder the fire burns. Then the patient is instructed in several simple guided imagery techniques; i.e. “Try and make the fire smaller by imagining that the painful area feels like an area of your body that is not in pain.” Subjects in a pilot study (published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) demonstrated control over their images and reported significantly less pain compared with controls. One can imagine similar protocols for those with depression, anxiety, OCD and ADHD. Combining the visual feedback with cognitive behavioral therapy might produce even more remarkable and sustainable results. Which is, of course, the main question – can we not only develop brief control over brain function (remarkable even in and of itself) but long-term, lasting relief of symptoms well after the sessions have ended?

Read the article for more details, and while you’re at it, check out the Tech Review cover story, a special report on energy technologies that can help us, today, combat the global warming crisis that looms over us in the not-too-distant future. We’re all gonna need some serious stress reduction techniques to get through that one. More on that “inconvenient truth” some other day.

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