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Brain Imaging - Unique Signatures for Every Condition

When the cold weather hits, you change the way you dress (put away the lightweight tees and pull out the wool sweaters), you rearrange your schedule to catch more sun rays (what little there are), you alter what you eat (more hots soups and stews), you enjoy the fireplace (not the pool water), and your body responds to the frosty weather with goosebumps rather than perspiration. In a similar fashion, when you develop chronic pain and other medical disorders, your body adapts with alterations in brain chemistry and function (although this generally is not a temporary change, like the seasons). Northwestern University imaging expert, A. Vania Apkarian, Ph.D., refers to this adaptation process that occurs in painful conditions as brain reorganization. It is not some behavioral aversion to discomfort (or in the foregoing analogy, cold weather), but rather, your brain's way of responding to chronic pain.

Apkarian hypothesizes that each painful condition will produce a unique signature in the brain, and if other medical conditions coexist (e.g., anxiety or depression), then brain imaging techniques will be able to pick them up as well. For example, with the use of magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and functional MRI (fMRI), he has shown that the brain alterations in a person with low back pain and anxiety will look distinctly different from a person with low back pain or anxiety alone, or neither condition.1 In other words, Apkarian and others in the field are beginning to show the individual impact of each disorder on altered brain function. What about recent findings in people with fibromyalgia? A few impressive studies are highlighted below.

In reference to the advances in technology, Apkarian and colleagues write: "We fully expect that the next generation of brain imaging studies of pain will impact clinical practice and thus contribute to decreasing pain in society."6 How realistic is this projection? Very! Apkarian published a report this year showing how a single dose of an anti-inflammatory drug produced objective improvements in arthritis and a corresponding change in brain chemistry.7

Go to the Research page in the Basic Info section of this site to obtain an overview of studies and findings.

1. Grachev ID, et al. J Neural Transm 109(10):1309-34, 2002.
2. Giesecke T, et al. Arthritis Rheum 52(5): 1577-84, 2005.
3. Sayar K, et al. Psychosomatics 46(4):340-4, 2005.
4. Petzke F, et al. Eur J Pain 9:325-35, 2005.
5. Gur A, et al. Clin Exp Rheumatol 20(6):753-60, 2002.
6. Apkarian AV, et al. Eur J Pain 9(4):463-84, 2005.
7. Baliki MN, et al. Mol Pain 1(1):32, 2005.

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