Does an exploding brain network cause chronic pain?

January 12, 2018 by Haley Otman, University of Michigan
Credit: University of Michigan

A new study finds that patients with fibromyalgia have brain networks primed for rapid, global responses to minor changes. This abnormal hypersensitivity, called explosive synchronization (ES), can be seen in other network phenomena across nature.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea report evidence of ES in the brains of people with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by widespread, . The paper, published in Scientific Reports, details only the second study of ES in human brain data.

"For the first time, this research shows that the hypersensitivity experienced by chronic patients may result from hypersensitive ," says co-senior author Richard Harris, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine with the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center. "The subjects had conditions similar to other networks that undergo explosive synchronization."

In ES, a small stimulus can lead to a dramatic synchronized reaction in the network, as can happen with a power grid failure (that rapidly turns things off) or a seizure (that rapidly turns things on). This phenomenon was, until recently, studied in physics rather than medicine. Researchers say it's a promising avenue to explore in the continued quest to determine how a person develops fibromyalgia.

"As opposed to the normal process of gradually linking up different centers in the brain after a stimulus, have conditions that predispose them to linking up in an abrupt, explosive manner," says first author UnCheol Lee, Ph.D., a physicist and assistant professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine. These conditions are similar to other networks that undergo ES, including power grids, Lee says.

'Electrically unstable' findings

The researchers recorded electrical activity in the brains of 10 female participants with fibromyalgia. Baseline EEG results showed hypersensitive and unstable brain networks, Harris says. Importantly, there was a strong correlation between the degree of ES conditions and the self-reported intensity of chronic pain reported by the patients at the time of EEG testing.

Lee's research team and collaborators in South Korea then used computer models of brain activity to compare stimulus responses of fibromyalgia patients to the normal condition. As expected, the fibromyalgia model was more sensitive to electrical stimulation than the model without ES characteristics, Harris says.

"We again see the chronic pain brain is electrically unstable and sensitive," Harris says.

He says this type of modeling could help guide future treatments for . Since ES can be modeled essentially outside of the brain or in a computer, researchers can exhaustively test for influential regions that transform a hypersensitive network into a more stable one. These regions could then be targeted in living humans using noninvasive brain modulation therapies.

George Mashour, M.D., Ph.D., co-senior author and professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine, says, "This study represents an exciting collaboration of physicists, neuroscientists and anesthesiologists. The -based approach, which can combine individual patient data and computer simulation, heralds the possibility of a personalized approach to ."

Explore further: Does widespread pain stem from the brain? MRI study investigates

More information: UnCheol Lee et al, Functional Brain Network Mechanism of Hypersensitivity in Chronic Pain, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-18657-4

Related Stories

Does widespread pain stem from the brain? MRI study investigates

August 10, 2017
Pain is the most common reason people seek medical care, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Fibromyalgia and the role of brain connectivity in pain inhibition

October 1, 2014
The cause of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome is not known. However, the results of a new study that compares brain activity in individuals with and without fibromyalgia indicate that decreased connectivity between pain-related ...

Brain imaging reveals dynamic changes caused by pain medicines

November 19, 2013
A study in the December issue of Anesthesiology suggests a role for brain imaging in the assessment and potential treatment of chronic pain.

Doubling up to fight pain

July 13, 2016
Queen's University researcher Ian Gilron has uncovered a more effective way of treating fibromyalgia, a medical condition characterized by chronic widespread pain typically accompanied by fatigue, as well as sleep, mood and ...

New research findings offers hope to people with fibromyalgia

September 21, 2017
A novel psychological therapy that encourages addressing emotional experiences related to trauma, conflict and relationship problems has been found helpful for people with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia. A research ...

Recommended for you

New insights into the way the brain combines memories to solve problems

September 19, 2018
Humans have the ability to creatively combine their memories to solve problems and draw new insights, a process that depends on memories for specific events known as episodic memory. But although episodic memory has been ...

What your cell phone camera tells you about your brain

September 19, 2018
Driving down a dark country road at night, you see a shape ahead on the roadside. Is it a deer or a mailbox? Your brain is structured to make the best possible decision given its limited resources, according to new research ...

Neuroscience of envy: Activated brain region when others are rewarded revealed

September 19, 2018
How we feel about our own material wellbeing and status in society is largely determined by our evaluation of others. However, the neurological underpinnings of how we monitor the complex social environments under conditions ...

Plasticity is enhanced but dysregulated in the aging brain

September 19, 2018
They say you can't teach old dogs new tricks, but new research shows you can teach an old rat new sounds, even if the lesson doesn't stick very long.

The 'real you' is a myth – we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want

September 19, 2018
We all want other people to "get us" and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a "real me". But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple ...

The brain predicts words before they are pronounced

September 18, 2018
The brain is not only able to finish the sentences of others: A study by the Basque research centre BCBL has shown for the first time that it can also anticipate an auditory stimulus and determine the phonemes and specific ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.