Using illusions to explore brain processes in people with musculoskeletal pain

Disease - Osteoarthritis, complex regional pain syndrome

Lead applicant - Dr Jenny Lewis

Organisation - University of the West of England

Type of grant - Research Award

Status of grant - Active

Amount of the original award - £204,069.25

Start date - 1 June 2017

Reference - 21503

Public Summary

What are the aims of this research?

Persistent pain is commonly felt by people with musculoskeletal conditions, such as osteoarthritis and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). However, current treatment for this pain, most often present in the limbs, is inadequate for a lot of people with these types of conditions.

Often, people with musculoskeletal conditions describe their painful limbs as different in size or shape compared to reality, and this is known as body perception disturbance. It has been found that using illusions to change the appearance of the affected body area can reduce pain levels. However, the brain processes for this pain reduction are unknown, therefore the aim of this project is to better understand this process in people with musculoskeletal pain in their hands.

Why is this research important?

It is known that pain alters brain structure through the reorganisation of nerves, and the greater the pain intensity the greater the reorganisation. It is also known that greater pain intensity also increases body perception disturbance, and recent findings have shown that exposure to body illusions results in significant pain reduction for both osteoarthritis and CRPS.

The researchers will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people with either osteoarthritis, CRPS or no pain in their hand. This will provide information on brain structure, as well as brain activity when viewing illusions of their painful hand. The researchers will also use patient experience to compare thoughts and perceptions about their painful hands to the level of pain felt. Together this information can help in the discovery of new brain network targets that can be used for future non-drug treatments.

How will the findings benefit patients?

Findings from this research will provide clinicians with better insight into pain related body perception, which will enable people presenting with these features to be identified earlier, and have access to better symptom management. The research may also be able to identify new brain network targets for the development of future treatments.