Woman using digital 3D projection of a human brain 3D rendering

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COLCHESTER, United Kingdom — Just like fingerprints, no two minds are exactly the same. New findings by a team from the University of Essex are revealing for the first time ever that each person’s brain has a unique “pain fingerprint” that varies widely from individual to individual.

Conducted in collaboration with the neuroscience of pain group at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, this project uncovered that fast-oscillating brain waves linked to brief pain and touch tend to differ widely across scans. These waves, referred to as gamma oscillations, have long been thought to represent pain perceptions within the brain. Prior research focusing on these waves utilized group data, consequently overlooking individual differences and even discarding the fluctuations as nothing more than “noise” in scans.

The Department of Psychology’s Dr. Elia Valentini noted major differences in timing, frequency, and location regarding gamma oscillations. Incredibly, some people actually showed no waves at all.

“Not only, for the first time, can we pinpoint the extreme variability in the gamma response across individuals, but we also show that the individual response pattern is stable across time,” says Dr. Valentini in a university release. “This pattern of group variability and individual stability may apply to other brain responses, and characterizing it may allow us to identify individual pain fingerprints in the activity of the brain.”

gamma brain waves
Gamma oscillation showing the person-to-person differences in pain (CREDIT: University of Essex)

This project successfully mapped out patterns in participants from another lab, suggesting a replicable phenomenon. In all, the team analyzed data encompassing 70 participants, with the experiments being split into two studies featuring a laser to generate pain.

All in all, researchers discovered that people’s gamma waves were “remarkably stable,” creating similar individual patterns when stimulated. However, some recorded feeling pain and having no gamma response, while others displayed a much larger response.

As of now, study authors can’t say what is driving these variations. Despite that, researchers hope this work will act as a launching pad for future research. Moreover, they’d like this study to also change the way gamma oscillations are measured across various other sensory domains.

“I think we need to go back to square one because past findings on the relationship between pain and gamma oscillations do not represent all the participants. Unfortunately, this minority can drive the research results and lead to misleading conclusions about the functional significance of these responses,” Dr. Valentini concludes.

“We don’t mean for gamma oscillations not to have a role in pain perception, but we certainly won’t find its true role if we keep quantifying it as we did thus far.”

The study is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

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