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Measuring levels of two chemicals released by the brain when it senses pain could offer an objective way to assess pain, according to a report from researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM). They reached that conclusion after a yearlong study at the UNM center for Mental Illness and Neuroscience Discovery (MIND) Institute.

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In the study, which was recently accepted for publication by NeuroImage Magazine, the researchers measured levels of glutamine and glutamate after inflicting pain on study subjects by placing ice on a foot for 10 minutes. Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy consistently found that the pain stimulus caused glutamate concentrations to increase by nearly 10% from baseline; glutamine levels consistently increased too. The increases correlated strongly to the study subjects' reports of pain.


Because pain intensity from a given pain stimulus can differ significantly between people, assessing and treating pain can be difficult if a patient can't report his pain. The researchers hope that their findings will help clinicians improve pain management protocols and prevent brain tissue damage associated with chronic pain.