Cause of Phantom Limb Pain in Amputees, and Potential Treatment, Identified

Discussion in 'Research News' started by Twitch, Oct 27, 2016.

    1. Twitch

      Twitch Member

      Tinnitus Since:
      Cause of Tinnitus:
      Researchers have identified the cause of chronic, and currently untreatable, pain in those with amputations and severe nerve damage, as well as a potential treatment which relies on engineering instead of drugs.

      Researchers have discovered that a 'reorganisation' of the wiring of the brain is the underlying cause of phantom limb pain, which occurs in the vast majority of individuals who have had limbs amputated, and a potential method of treating it which uses artificial intelligence techniques.

      The researchers, led by a group from Osaka University in Japan in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, used a brain-machine interface to train a group of ten individuals to control a robotic arm with their brains. They found that if a patient tried to control the prosthetic by associating the movement with their missing arm, it increased their pain, but training them to associate the movement of the prosthetic with the unaffected hand decreased their pain.

      Their results, reported in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrate that in patients with chronic pain associated with amputation or nerve injury, there are 'crossed wires' in the part of the brain associated with sensation and movement, and that by mending that disruption, the pain can be treated. The findings could also be applied to those with other forms of chronic pain, including pain due to arthritis.

      Approximately 5,000 amputations are carried out in the UK every year, and those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes are at particular risk of needing an amputation. In most cases, individuals who have had a hand or arm amputated, or who have had severe nerve injuries which result in a loss of sensation in their hand, continue to feel the existence of the affected hand as if it were still there. Between 50 and 80 percent of these patients suffer with chronic pain in the 'phantom' hand, known as phantom limb pain.

      "Even though the hand is gone, people with phantom limb pain still feel like there's a hand there -- it basically feels painful, like a burning or hypersensitive type of pain, and conventional painkillers are ineffective in treating it," said study co-author Dr Ben Seymour, a neuroscientist based in Cambridge's Department of Engineering. "We wanted to see if we could come up with an engineering-based treatment as opposed to a drug-based treatment."

      A popular theory of the cause of phantom limb pain is faulty 'wiring' of the sensorimotor cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for processing sensory inputs and executing movements. In other words, there is a mismatch between a movement and the perception of that movement.

      In the study, Seymour and his colleagues, led by Takufumi Yanagisawa from Osaka University, used a brain-machine interface to decode the neural activity of the mental action needed for a patient to move their 'phantom' hand, and then converted the decoded phantom hand movement into that of a robotic neuroprosthetic using artificial intelligence techniques.

      "We found that the better their affected side of the brain got at using the robotic arm, the worse their pain got," said Yanagisawa. "The movement part of the brain is working fine, but they are not getting sensory feedback -- there's a discrepancy there."

      The researchers then altered their technique to train the 'wrong' side of the brain: for example, a patient who was missing their left arm was trained to move the prosthetic arm by decoding movements associated with their right arm, or vice versa. When they were trained in this counter-intuitive technique, the patients found that their pain significantly decreased. As they learned to control the arm in this way, it takes advantage of the plasticity -- the ability of the brain to restructure and learn new things -- of the sensorimotor cortex, showing a clear link between plasticity and pain.

      Although the results are promising, Seymour warns that the effects are temporary, and require a large, expensive piece of medical equipment to be effective. However, he believes that a treatment based on their technique could be available within five to ten years. "Ideally, we'd like to see something that people could have at home, or that they could incorporate with physio treatments," he said. "But the results demonstrate that combining AI techniques with new technologies is a promising avenue for treating pain, and an important area for future UK-Japan research collaboration."

      This research has nothing to do with tinnitus however T has been likened to phantom limb pain so thought I'd put this here. Some interesting stuff re. plasticity and how they are have tried retraining people with some degree of success.
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    2. Champ

      Champ Member Benefactor

      Boston, MA
      Tinnitus Since:
      Cause of Tinnitus:
      Acoustic trauma from headphones
      I really do think that there will be some advanced sound therapy that will take into account cause & remaining hearing ranges and be able to play tones to actually help reorganize the brain on an individual. Sound therapy alone already helps one habituate and stop feeding into the negative feedback loop of hearing it. It would seem that if it can rise up from the brain when it's subconsciously trying to hear what is not there, you can train the brain to ignore what is not there as well.
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    3. suze

      suze Member

      Tinnitus Since:
      Cause of Tinnitus:
      Years ago we started flooding fresh amputations with local pain meds to stop phantom pain. I'm not sure how effective it was because I only worked with inpatients. Nerve cells learn pain and some don't shut off ... they will fire in a petri dish for no reason other than they were taught to fire from prior exposure to pain.
    4. UKBloke

      UKBloke Member Podcast Patron Benefactor

      Tinnitus Since:
      Cause of Tinnitus:
      Loud Music / family history
      @Hazel just read your blog post from your recent Nottingham visit. The reference to phantom pain is intriguing. A potential link between phantom pain and tinnitus is something I've also been thinking of for a while now and your comments reminded me of a documentary from a few years back. Check out this clip:

      Phantom Limb Mirror Box video

      I'm convinced that the same mechanisms apply to tinnitus.
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    5. Hazel

      Hazel Director Staff Podcast Patron Benefactor Hall of Fame Advocate

      the Netherlands
      Tinnitus Since:
      Cause of Tinnitus:
      one-sided hearing loss (of unknown origin)
      Thanks for the feedback! I find the potential link with phantom pain intriguing as well. Understanding this better might give important clues that lead to a cure. Thanks for the link, I'll check it out soon!
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