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Brain Scans Offer Precise Measurement Of Human Pain

• Francie Diep via

Pain may be personal, but when it comes to a painful burn, people's brains seem to react the same way.

A team of researchers administered painful doses of heat to human subjects' forearms, in a range of temperatures from 111.7°F (44.3°C) to 120.7°F (49.3°C). Then, using brain scans, the team accurately evaluated the amount of pain the people felt, distinguishing between painful temperatures just one degree Celsius apart. Further research along these lines could lead to an objective measure of physical pain, though that's still a long ways away.

The immediate next step is to see if other types of pain, say from too much pressure, also create measurable, uniform responses the way heat does. And figuring out chronic pain, which is often associated with disease, will be another beast to tackle.

This study was one of a few recent studies that have tried to quantify people's pain by examining functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scans, Tor Wager, the study's lead scientist and a researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, tells Popular Science. And, he says, it's the first to achieve this level of accuracy.

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