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David A Seminowicz, PhD

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Neural and Pain Sciences

Brain imaging in humans

Where in the brain is pain realized? We haven't quite figured that out, but we do know that specific areas of the brain - many areas, in fact - are activated when a person is experiencing pain. One of our goals with human neuroimaging is to determine the role of cognitive and emotional factors on these activations. We are currently investigating the effect of attention states on acute pain and in people with various chronic pain conditions. In the case of chronic pain, we are investigating the effects of different treatments on abnormal brain activity and anatomy. We investigate these problems using task and resting state functional MRI, and structural MRI including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).

multiple imaging methods examples


Brain imaging and behavior in rats

While neuroimaging experiments in humans can tell us about the experience of pain, using imaging in animal models of chronic pain allows us to ask questions about specific aspects of pain and the necessity of precise brain areas. Our previous research (click here for a summary) demonstrated that the development of anxiety-like behaviors in the rat coincided with the volumetric decreases in prefrontal cortical areas in a model of chronic neuropathic pain. With rat models we also have the ability to perform histological and biochemical experiments on the same animals that have had MRIs. We are currently investigating the roles of the PFC in other pain behaviors and using functional MRI to investigate the connectivity of PFC and other brain areas. This research is partly in collaboration with Dr. Radi Masri, in the department of Endodontics, Prosthodontics and Operative Dentistry.

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Structural MRI studies

In addition to functional MRI, we also investigate gray matter density and cortical thickness changes associated with chronic pain. We recently found that people with chronic low back pain who were treated effectively for their pain had an increase in cortical thickness in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which was thinner before treatment than healthy controls.

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Identifying brain targets for pain treatment

A long term goal of ours is to translate our basic science findings to clinical applications. Altogether, the research described above can help us to understand the abnormal functional and structural neuroanatomy associated with pain and eventually provide clues about the areas that could be targeted for treatment. There are currently several methods for targeting activity in brain regions, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), as well as new experimental drug delivery approaches that could potentially allow us to target specific brain regions pharmacologically.

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