Dr. Vania Apkarian, a Professor of Physiology at Northwestern uses sophisticated MRI technology to study the brain in states of chronic pain. He just reported that chronic pain may stem from the emotional impact on the brain at the time of the original trauma (Pain, Vol.132, Nov. 2007). MRIs during chronic pain states reveal that the pre-frontal cortex — the site of emotional and cognitive learning and where such memories are stored — light up.

Apkarian theorized that if he could erase the painful memory, or at least desensitize the brain to it, the pain would lessen. He induced chronic pain in rats by cutting 2 of the 3 strands of their left sciatic nerve. After their injuries healed, he gave some of the rats Cycloserine, a drug that interferes with long-term memory. The rats that got the drug still felt painful stimuli, but they didn’t seem to mind anymore.

Admittedly, it’s hard to jump from rats to people. We aren’t that different in terms of our genetics, however, so maybe using drugs could be helpful in treating chronic pain syndromes in people. Apkarian says if we could turn off the memory of pain using similar medications in humans, we might offer relief to millions who are not helped by traditional painkillers or who become addicted to them.

Most research in treating chronic pain is focused on dulling the sensation of pain by blocking out the sensory input with narcotics like morphine, dilaudid, hydrocodone, and codeine. Much less attention has been paid to the emotional component of pain and the potential for treating it centrally.

What Dr. Apkarian learned in rats has long been known by healers throughout history. Old traumas, both emotional and physical, can linger for a long time and cripple us. We have now discovered drugs to dull the memory, but there are other ways to be desensitized from old traumas. Since ancient times, healers have used herbs, ceremony, trance induction, meditation, substances that expand consciousness rather than dull it, and all of them have worked.

The important principle in the no-pain brain game is to find a way to see the old landscape with new eyes. Any way that can get you to see beyond old, painful memories and experience a new reality will help you.