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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Anesthesiology and Pain Management - Neuroscience - Physiology

Towards a Physiology-Based Measure of Pain: Patterns of Human Brain Activity Distinguish Painful from Non-Painful Thermal Stimulation
Published: Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Author: Justin E. Brown et al.

by Justin E. Brown, Neil Chatterjee, Jarred Younger, Sean Mackey

Pain often exists in the absence of observable injury; therefore, the gold standard for pain assessment has long been self-report. Because the inability to verbally communicate can prevent effective pain management, research efforts have focused on the development of a tool that accurately assesses pain without depending on self-report. Those previous efforts have not proven successful at substituting self-report with a clinically valid, physiology-based measure of pain. Recent neuroimaging data suggest that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and support vector machine (SVM) learning can be jointly used to accurately assess cognitive states. Therefore, we hypothesized that an SVM trained on fMRI data can assess pain in the absence of self-report. In fMRI experiments, 24 individuals were presented painful and nonpainful thermal stimuli. Using eight individuals, we trained a linear SVM to distinguish these stimuli using whole-brain patterns of activity. We assessed the performance of this trained SVM model by testing it on 16 individuals whose data were not used for training. The whole-brain SVM was 81% accurate at distinguishing painful from non-painful stimuli (p<0.0000001). Using distance from the SVM hyperplane as a confidence measure, accuracy was further increased to 84%, albeit at the expense of excluding 15% of the stimuli that were the most difficult to classify. Overall performance of the SVM was primarily affected by activity in pain-processing regions of the brain including the primary somatosensory cortex, secondary somatosensory cortex, insular cortex, primary motor cortex, and cingulate cortex. Region of interest (ROI) analyses revealed that whole-brain patterns of activity led to more accurate classification than localized activity from individual brain regions. Our findings demonstrate that fMRI with SVM learning can assess pain without requiring any communication from the person being tested. We outline tasks that should be completed to advance this approach toward use in clinical settings.
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