Mind Over Matter, With a Machine's Help
WOULD that thinking made it so, people sometimes wistfully say. But Christopher deCharms, the chief executive of Omneuron, a start-up in Menlo Park, Calif., believes the adage.
The company he founded has created technologies that teach sufferers to think away their pain, and plans to similarly treat addiction, depression and other intractable neurological and psychological conditions.
Omneuron is one of a number of new companies that are commercializing a brain-scanning technology called real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Using large scanners to measure blood flow to different parts of the brain, the technology makes the brain's activity visible by revealing which of its parts are busiest when we perform different tasks.
While fMRI dates back to the early 1990s, hitherto it has been used mainly by doctors in hospitals to make diagnoses. The commercialization of brain scanning is a recent development, spurred by the refinement of the technology. Omneuron, which Dr. deCharms founded in 2001 and whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, uses fMRI to teach people how to play with their own heads. Other entrepreneurs are working on ways to deploy fMRI as a lie detector, a tool for conducting marketing research or an instrument to make brain surgeries safer and more precise.
Here's how Omneuron uses fMRI to treat chronic pain: A patient slides into the coffin-like scanner and watches a computer-generated flame projected on the screen of virtual-reality goggles; the flame's intensity reflects the neural activity of regions of the brain involved in the perception of pain. Using a variety of mental techniques — for instance, imagining that a painful area is being flooded with soothing chemicals — most people can, with a little concentration, make the flame wax or wane. As the flame wanes, the patient feels better. Superficially similar to an older technology, electroencephalogram biofeedback, which measures electrical feedback across multiple areas of the brain, fMRI feedback measures the blood flow in precise areas of the brain.
"We believe that people will use real-time fMRI feedback to hone cognitive strategies that will increase activation of brain regions," Dr. deCharms said. With practice and repetition, he said, this could lead to "long-term changes in the brain."
In time, he hopes, a patient could evoke the effect without the machine.
In a 2005 study, Dr. deCharms and Sean Mackey, associate director of the pain management division at Stanford, showed that eight patients with recalcitrant pain felt their discomfort reduced by as much as 64 percent by using Omneuron's technology.
If fMRI proves effective in treating pain, it could be big business. According to the American Chronic Pain Association, one in three Americans will experience chronic pain at some point in life. At any one time, more than 50 million Americans complain of pain. And Dr. deCharms contends that fully one-third find their pain resistant to traditional treatments like narcotics. Omneuron's technologies could offer such patients some relief, and without side effects.
The pain-relief industry is huge: the average American spends as much as $900 a year on pain medications, whose effects are generally short-lived.
But Dr. deCharms says that controlling pain is just one of many possible uses for fMRI feedback. Today, Omneuron is also researching treatments for addiction, depression and other psychological illnesses. In addition, he said. the company has contemplated "several dozen applications," including the treatment of stroke and epilepsy. Brain scanning could even be used to improve athletic performance, he speculated.