A technique developed by the University of Birmingham demonstrates link between patients’ alpha brain waves and responses to pain

A new technique developed by the University of Birmingham could allow clinicians to plan additional preventative pain medication during surgery for vulnerable patients.

The system could mean that these patients are less likely to experience pain during their recovery and are also less likely to go on to suffer chronic symptoms.

The study was carried out by Samantha Millard, at the Centre for Human Brain Health, in collaboration with researchers in the University’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust.

The project involved 16 patients about to undergo surgery to treat lung cancer and the pilot study was published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.

In the study, a team of researchers showed how electroencephalography can be used to measure brain activity in patients about to undergo chest surgery or thoracotomy. Prior to surgery, the team measured the alpha brain waves of patients. These waves are signals which oscillate between 8 and 14Hz. Over 72 hours following surgery, patients were asked to score their pain on a scale of one to ten.

The researchers were able to demonstrate a clear link between the patients’ alpha brain waves and their responses to pain, finding that those whose alpha waves oscillated below 9Hz were much more vulnerable to severe post-surgery pain.

The alpha waves measured before surgery were able to predict, with 100% accuracy, which patients would report a pain score after surgery of seven out of ten or higher.

Dr Ali Mazaheri, from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health and School of Psychology, is senior author of the study. He explained: “The experience of being in pain is complicated and subjective, but it’s clear that these alpha waves are a reliable indicator of how severely an individual will experience pain.

“That offers clinicians a really valuable biomarker that they can use to prevent pain becoming an issue, rather than treating it after it has taken hold and become a serious, and potentially chronic problem,” he added.

The study was supported by funding from the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre. In its next phase, the team hope to test the technique in a larger patient cohort and continue studying the link between alpha waves and how the brain processes pain.