Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Pain from the brain

Study reveals how people with a severe unexplained psychological illness have abnormal activity in the brain

Psychogenic diseases, formerly known as 'hysterical' illnesses, can have many severe symptoms such as painful cramps or paralysis but without any physical explanation. However, new research from the University of Cambridge and UCL (University College London) suggests that individuals with psychogenic disease, that is to say physical illness that stems from emotional or mental stresses, do have brains that function differently. The research was published today, 25 February, in the journal Brain.

Psychogenic diseases may look very similar to illnesses caused by damage to nerves, the brain or the muscles, or similar to genetic diseases of the nervous system. However, unlike organic diseases, psychogenic diseases do not have any apparent physical cause, making them difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat.

"The processes leading to these disorders are poorly understood, complex and highly variable. As a result, treatments are also complex, often lengthy and in many cases there is poor recovery. In order to improve treatment of these disorders, it is important to first understand the underlying mechanism," said Dr James Rowe from the University of Cambridge.

The study looked at people with either psychogenic or organic dystonia, as well as healthy people with no dystonia. Both types of dystonia caused painful and disabling muscle contractions affecting the leg. The organic patient group had a gene mutation (the DYT1 gene) that caused their dystonia. The psychogenic patients had the symptoms of dystonia but did not have any physical explanation for the disease, even after extensive investigations.

The scientists performed PET brain scans on the volunteers at UCL, to measure the blood flow and brain activity of both of the groups, and healthy volunteers. The participants were scanned with three different foot positions: resting, moving their foot, and holding their leg in a dystonic position. The electrical activity of the leg muscles was measured at the same time to determine which muscles were engaged during the scans.

The researchers found that the brain function of individuals with the psychogenic illness was not normal. The changes were, however, very different from the brains of individuals with the organic (genetic) disease.

Dr Anette Schrag, from UCL, said: "Finding abnormalities of brain function that are very different from those in the organic form of dystonia opens up a way for researchers to learn how psychological factors can, by changing brain function, lead to physical problems."

Dr Rowe added: "What struck me was just how very different the abnormal brain function was in patients with the genetic and the psychogenic dystonia. Even more striking was that the differences were there all the time, whether the patients were resting or trying to move."

Additionally, the researchers found that one part of the brain previously thought to indicate psychogenic disease is unreliable: abnormal activity of the prefrontal cortex was thought to be the hallmark of psychogenic diseases. In this study, the scientists showed that this abnormality is not unique to psychogenic disease, since activity was also present in the patients with the genetic cause of dystonia when they tried to move their foot.

Dr Arpan Mehta, from the University of Cambridge, said: "It is interesting that, despite the differences, both types of patient had one thing in common - a problem at the front of the brain. This area controls attention to our movements and although the abnormality is not unique to psychogenic dystonia, it is part of the problem."

This type of illness is very common. Dr Schrag said: "One in six patients that see a neurologist has a psychogenic illness. They are as ill as someone with organic disease, but with a different cause and different treatment needs. Understanding these disorders, diagnosing them early and finding the right treatment are all clearly very important. We are hopeful that these results might help doctors and patients understand the mechanism leading to this disorder, and guide better treatments."

For additional information please contact:

Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
Tel: direct, 44-0-1223-332300
Mob: 44-0-7774-017464
Notes to editors:
1. The paper 'The functional neuroimaging correlates of psychogenic versus organic dystonia' will be published in the 25 February edition of Brain.

2. The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

3. About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine.

We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by our performance in a range of international rankings and tables. According to the Thomson Scientific Citation Index, UCL is the second most highly cited European university and the 15th most highly cited in the world.

UCL has nearly 25,000 students from 150 countries and more than 9,000 employees, of whom one third are from outside the UK. The university is based in Bloomsbury in the heart of London, but also has two international campuses – UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. Our annual income is more than £800 million.

Genevieve Maul | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Brain Pain therapy UCL brain function genetic disease muscle contraction

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

First-time reconstruction of infectious bat influenza viruses

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Novel method to benchmark and improve the performance of protein measumeasurement techniques

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Amazon rain helps make more rain

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>