Chronic pain


Understanding how the brain is involved in chronic pain


About our research

Sensory relearning project

The McAuley Group is conducting research into a new treatment for chronic pain aimed at correcting problems in how the brain processes sensory information.

Based on recent research that suggests that changes in the brain are linked to the experience of pain, this novel therapy uses brain training techniques to treat chronic pain.

People with chronic pain often experience peculiar symptoms, for example they lose the ability to clearly pinpoint and recognise the sense of touch on their body.

In this technique, called ‘sensory relearning’, patients are touched with an object, for example a wine cork, and are asked whether they recognise the object, where on their body they are being touched and how many times.

The hope is that this type of training will ‘retune’ the brain and, in turn, diminish pain. The team is currently conducting a clinical trial to test the efficacy of this technique.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) project

For reasons as yet unknown, a small percentage of people who experience a physically traumatic event, often a wrist fracture, develop a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Their painful limb may swell, sweat, become red and hot and immobile, and in the longer term they may develop localised osteoporosis. Symptoms can last many months or even years.

About 5000 Australians are newly diagnosed with CRPS every year, and in any given year, about 22,000 Australians will suffer from CRPS. CRPS is three times more common in females than in males.

The Moseley and McAuley Groups are currently conducting a study of people with CRPS using functional MRI to look for changes in areas of the brain (the primary sensory cortex) associated with representation of the injured limb. The common theory is that the area of brain that represents the limb (the ‘cortical real estate’) shrinks. However, we recently proved that is wrong. We are now working together with collaborators at University College London to identify how the representation changes and what implications this might have for preventing the disorder.

See what’s going on at NeuRA


What is the analgesic effect of EEG neurofeedback for people with chronic pain? A systematic review

Researchers: A/Prof Sylvia Gustin, Dr Negin Hesam-Shariati, Dr Wei-Ju Chang, A/Prof James McAuley, Dr Andrew Booth, A/Prof Toby Newton-John, Prof Chin-Teng Lin, A/Prof Zina Trost Chronic pain is a global health problem, affecting around one in five individuals in the general population. The understanding of the key role of functional brain alterations in the generation of chronic pain has led researchers to focus on pain treatments that target brain activity. Electroencephalographic (EEG) neurofeedback attempts to modulate the power of maladaptive EEG frequency powers to decrease chronic pain. Although several studies provide promising evidence, the effect of EEG neurofeedback on chronic pain is uncertain. This systematic review aims to synthesise the evidence from randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to evaluate the analgesic effect of EEG neurofeedback. The search strategy will be performed on five electronic databases (Cochrane Central, MEDLINE, Embase, PsycInfo, and CINAHL) for published studies and on clinical trial registries for completed unpublished studies. We will include studies that used EEG neurofeedback as an intervention for people with chronic pain. Risk of bias tools will be used to assess methodological quality of the included studies. RCTs will be included if they have compared EEG neurofeedback with any other intervention or placebo control. The data from RCTs will be aggregated to perform a meta-analysis for quantitative synthesis. In addition, non-randomised studies will be included for a narrative synthesis. The data from non-randomised studies will be extracted and summarised in a descriptive table. The primary outcome measure is pain intensity assessed by self-report scales. Secondary outcome measures include depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and sleep quality measured by self-reported questionnaires. Further, we will investigate the non-randomised studies for additional outcomes addressing safety, feasibility, and resting-state EEG analysis.