Of all the mysteries of the human body, the brain tops out as the least understood organ. Right behind it in terms of mystery and lack of understanding is exactly the way pain functions. Now, a recent study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder has shed some light on how cognition can affect physical pain signals in the brain.
We’ve known that a person’s mindset can affect the way he or she experiences physical pain, but the new study shows that when a person’s cognitive efforts affect his or her perception of pain, it isn’t the neural pathways that transmit the pain signal themselves that change. Affecting pain through thought — which is referred to as “cognitive self-regulation” and is often used to manage chronic pain — works through a separate pathway in the brain.
Ultimately, the study, which was published in PLOS Biology subverts what scientists previously thought about the brain — that there is just one single pain system within it.
“We found that there are two different pathways in our brains that contribute to the pain experience,” said Choong-Wan Woo, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in CU-Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, according to the University’s website.
The study asked participants to use cognitive self regulation while being exposed to painful heat stimuli on their arms. First, they were asked to not to think of anything, then to imagine the heat damaging their skin, and then that the heat was a welcome sensation on a cold day.
During the process, the participants’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When the study’s authors compared the scans, they found that the physical pain response in the brain remained the same regardless of the scenario.
They did, however, find that a second pathway was more less or more active, depending on the cognitive self-regulation that was used.
This could have implications for the treatment of pain, which is a common problem in America. In fact, the leading cause of disability among Americans under the age of 45 is back pain. Understanding how pain works in the brain could lead to advancements in the treatment of it.