Pain, like beauty, is in the
altered by empathy and tempered by faith, three new brain imaging
effect of belief can alter directly how strongly people feel pain,
causing measurable changes in brain cells and synapses —
whether the torment is their own or a loved one’s.
findings, to be made public today by independent research teams
at the University of Michigan, Princeton University, the University
of California at Los Angeles and University College London, offer
the strongest evidence yet of how the brain thinks about pain.
the neural anatomy of pain, the researchers documented the ways
in which the brain creates a world of its own from the raw material
of physical sensation.
medical imaging scanners to monitor brain activity, researchers
at Michigan, UCLA and Princeton revealed that simple faith in
a placebo can alter the neural circuits that process pain, easing
In a separate
experiment, the researchers at University College showed the brain
is a mirror of suffering, reflecting through many of the same
neural circuits the pain that others feel, much as if the sensation
was its own genuine torment.
the brain’s ability to share another’s response to
pain at such a fundamental cellular level might be the key to
a sense of empathy, the personality trait that underpins so many
human relationships, researchers said.
brain regions are critical to the interplay between the outside
world and you,” said neuropsychologist Helen Mayberg at
Emory University in Atlanta.
monitoring mental activity, the researchers showed how expectations
and anticipation mold the brain’s response to the physical
sensation of pain.
To a certain
degree, pain is an act of imagination.
are zeroing in on some pathways where our thoughts and beliefs
are changing our physical and emotional experience,” said
UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman. “We don’t typically
think of those as things we can control.”
used brain mapping techniques to survey the same neural terrain
from three slightly different perspectives.
the studies are to be published today in the journal Science.
The third will be published next month in Neuroimaging.
understand pain and empathy, a team led by social psychologist
Tania Singer at the Institute of Neurology at University College
London tested 19 couples who, because they were romantically involved,
could be expected to be attuned to each other.
from each pair was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance
imaging scanner. Her neural activity was recorded first as researchers
gave her a brief electric shock, then as her partner received
the same shock.
discovered the same critical brain regions involved in processing
the physical sensation of pain were activated in each case.
of empathy for another’s pain triggered regions of the brain
responsible for processing pain, much as if it were a direct sensation,
and her colleagues, it strongly suggested that humans are hard-wired
are pretty sure that it is a universal mechanism,” Singer
said. “It is how we can put ourselves emotionally in another’s
how belief affects the brain’s response to pain, Lieberman
and his UCLA colleagues conducted brain scans of 14 patients given
a placebo to treat their chronic abdominal pain.
revealed the patients’ faith in the substance they were
given eased their symptoms and also produced physical changes
in areas of the brain that process pain.
the brain changes, the greater the reduction in pain, the researchers
University of Michigan and Princeton, researchers produced even
more compelling evidence that the expectation of relief causes
physical changes in how the brain handles pain.
dozens of volunteers by giving them shocks while monitoring their
neural activity in a brain scanner.
gave them all a placebo in the form of a harmless cream the patients
were told would prevent the pain. Then the scientists conducted
another round of shocks.
of relief was enough to cause physical changes in those pain-processing
regions of the brain, offering tangible evidence of the placebo
actually see physical changes in the brain that correspond closely
to changes in symptoms that the patients report,” said psychologist
Tor Wager, who led the Michigan research team.
determined that pain depends not only on the actual sensory signals
from nerves the brain receives, but also on someone’s emotional