The Thinking Man's Barcode

A large portion of the population is currently living with chronic pain. Average age and lifestyle may be resulting in an increase in particular types of chronic pain, but we are probably better off today than the population was years ago. However, it is still a hard row to hoe and can consume a large fraction of your time and thoughts.

There is increasing evidence that, because of the plasticity of our brains, chronic pain induces measurable changes in local grey matter. Baliki et al have come up with a better way of classifying those changes (1). They had a group of 120 subjects with about a third being healthy young people and three other groups of middle-aged people with one of three chronic pain conditions.

The methodology was to quantify the local morphology of 82 different regions of the brains. The method used was voxel-based morphometry, VBM, which just means estimating the regional volume of material associated with defined activities.

They found that there were significant changes in amounts of grey matter at the 82 regions depending on the type of chronic pain. The differences were sufficient to produce characteristic 82 element barcodes, so the barcode for someone with chronic back pain was easily distinguished from someone with chronic osteoarthritis pain. The clarity of the characteristic barcodes increased with the length of time that the chronic condition had been present and its severity.

It is interesting to speculate where this could go in terms of diagnostic possibilities. The study was careful to exclude anyone suffering from depression, which is a common adjunct to chronic pain, as it might blur the barcode. However, using barcode changes to quantify the effectiveness of treatment could become an effective measure.

The downside? Well, if the insurance companies and their lawyers get hold of it, who knows what might happen to payouts for accidents. Politicians too might start looking at disability classification based on barcodes and their intensity.


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