Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to look at the brains of those of us with Fibromyalgia and see that we are different? Well, it seems (again and again) that there just might be.
There have been a few studies now that have shown definite differences in how brains of those of us with Fibromyalgia process things when compared to healthy people. I wrote about a study a couple of years ago that showed a difference in our brains when using working memory. A 2014 study by Maria Lopez-Sola et al shows that those of us with Fibromyalgia also have different brain responses to non-painful stimuli.
The fact that Fibromyalgia patients are hyper-sensitive is nothing new. We are more likely to feel pain when pain shouldn’t be there. A gentle hug, or even sheets rubbing against our legs can result in pain. Studies have shown that it’s not all in our heads, it’s in our nerves and the way that they process pain.
This study compared how the brain processes non-painful stimuli (auditory, visual, & touch) in both Fibromyalgia patients and healthy controls. 35 Fibromyalgia patients and 25 healthy controls participated.
Participants were alternated in 30 second blocks between rest and stimulation. Stimulation consisted of simultaneous visual (flashing checkerboard), auditory (series of 15 tones), and a tactile task where the participant was asked to touch the tip of their right thumb to the other fingers. fMRI scans of the brain were completed during rest and stimulation. Overall, Fibromyalgia patients showed increased brain responses to the stimuli.
This year Dr. Lopez-Sola is back with colleagues from The University of Colorado Boulder with something even better. Building off of that 2014 study they compared brain response to both painful and non-painful stimuli in 37 Fibromyalgia patients matched with 35 healthy people. What they found was a definitive signature that they’ve stated can differentiate the Fibromyalgia brain with 93% accuracy.
It’s amazing what computers can do these days. They used machine-learning techniques to identify at a brain-based Fibromyalgia “signature”.
Obviously, this is just the beginning as they will need to expand this study to a wider group of people. Add to that that it may never be used as a diagnosis tool due simply to cost. Standard MRIs simply look at the structure of the brain while fMRI looks at the function (which parts of the brain are used for different things). While MRIs are widely used, fMRI is still not very widely used and seems to be used more for research than for actual diagnostics (outside of stroke, alzheimer, and brain tumor patients). However, perhaps in time as more value is seen in fMRI we will see that expand and see it become a widely used diagnostic tool.
Even if we haven’t reached the point yet where fMRI can be used to diagnose we have reached a point where study after study shows that Fibromyalgia is a neurological disorder. Our brains simply process stimuli differently than the brains of healthy people.
López‐Solà, M., Pujol, J., Wager, T. D., Garcia‐Fontanals, A., Blanco‐Hinojo, L., Garcia‐Blanco, S., … & Garcia‐Fructuoso, F. (2014). Altered functional magnetic resonance imaging responses to nonpainful sensory stimulation in fibromyalgia patients. Arthritis & rheumatology, 66(11), 3200-3209.
López-Solà, M., Woo, C. W., Pujol, J., Deus, J., Harrison, B. J., Monfort, J., & Wager, T. D. (2016). Towards a neurophysiological signature for fibromyalgia. Pain.