Researchers Discover ‘Brain Signature’ for Fibromyalgia

By Pat Anson, Editor

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered a “brain signature” that identifies fibromyalgia with 93 percent accuracy, a potential breakthrough in the diagnosis and treatment of a chronic pain condition that five million Americans suffer from.

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression and insomnia. The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown and there is no universally accepted way to diagnose or treat it.

The CU Boulder researchers used MRI scans to study brain activity in a group of 37 fibromyalgia patients and 35 control patients, who were exposed to a series of painful and non-painful sensations.

The researchers were able to identify three neurological patterns in the brain that correlated with the pain hypersensitivity typically experienced with fibromyalgia.



"The potential for brain measures like the ones we developed here is that they can tell us something about the particular brain abnormalities that drive an individual's suffering. That can help us both recognize fibromyalgia for what it is - a disorder of the central nervous system - and treat it more effectively," said Tor Wager, director of CU Boulder’s Cognitive and Affective Control Laboratory.

If replicated in future studies, the findings could lead to a new method to diagnosis fibromyalgia with MRI brain scans. Patients who suffer from fibromyalgia have long complained that they are not taken seriously and have to visit multiple doctors to get a diagnosis.

"The novelty of this study is that it provides potential neuroimaging-based tools that can be used with new patients to inform about the degree of certain neural pathology underlying their pain symptoms," said Marina López-Solà, a post-doctoral researcher at CU Boulder and lead author of a study published in the journal Pain. "This is a helpful first step that builds off of other important previous work and is a natural step in the evolution of our understanding of fibromyalgia as a brain disorder."

One patient advocate calls the use of MRI brain scans a breakthrough in fibromyalgia research.

"New cutting-edge neurological imaging used by CU Boulder researchers advances fibromyalgia research by light years," said Jan Chambers, founder of the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association. "It allows scientists to see in real time what is happening in the brains of people with fibromyalgia. 

"In fibromyalgia, the misfiring and irregular engagement of different parts of the brain to process normal sensory stimuli like light, sound, pressure, temperature and odor, results in pain, flu-like sensations or other symptoms.  Research also shows that irregular activity in the peripheral nervous system may be ramping up the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).  So the effect is like a loop of maladjustment going back and forth while the brain is trying to find a balance.  This extra brain work can be exhausting." 

The theory that fibromyalgia is a neurological disorder in the brain is not accepted by all. Other experts contend it is an autoimmune disorder or even a “symptom cluster” caused by multiple chronic pain conditions. And some doctors still refuse to accept fibromyalgia as a disease.

One company has already developed a diagnostic test for fibromyalgia – and it’s not a brain scan. EpicGenetics has a blood test that looks for protein molecules produced by white blood cells. Fibromyalgia patients have fewer of these molecules than healthy people and have weaker immune systems, according to the founder of EpicGenetics. But critics have called the blood test “junk science” that is backed up by little research.