Pain travels along two pathways from a source, such as an injury, back to your brain. One is the sensory pathway, which transmits the physical sensation. The other is the emotional pathway, which goes from the injury to the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortexareas of the brain that process emotion.
In a 2005 study, researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures activity in different areas of the brain, to see whether subjects could learn to control a brain region involved in pain and whether that could be a tool for altering their pain perception.
Giving control to pain patients
For Sean Mackey, MD, director of the pain management division at Stanford University School of Medicine and one of the study's researchers, the research revealed a striking element of empowerment. "Patients would say, 'A-ha! For the first time I could see the pain in my brain, and I could control it. And that was a very powerful experience," he says.