A new database at the University of California, Los Angeles, featuring hundreds of brain scans and other key clinical information will help researchers tease out similarities and differences between migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other chronic-pain conditions, UCLA Health officials say.

The Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress at UCLA will serve as the main hub for this new Pain and Interoception Imaging Network (PAIN); UCLA Health says it is the first-ever standardized database for brain imaging associated with chronic pain. So far, 14 institutions in North America and Europe are participating.

Building upon their experiences creating a similar but smaller network to study pelvic pain, the UCLA team is now developing this larger chronic-pain network with the help of a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

"We are now recognizing that chronic pain is a brain disease, and if we want to treat it more effectively, we need to better understand and treat the mechanisms in the brain that are driving it," Emeran Mayer, M.D., director of the Oppenheimer Center, said in a statement announcing the project.

According to Mayer, brain imaging is one of the most promising technologies for breakthrough findings in chronic pain. However, research is currently significantly limited, due to the fact that most institutions can only support small studies on their own and lack access to large samples of patients. In addition, there is no standardization of acquired data, making it difficult to combine brain scans from multiple investigators that are obtained using different scanners, techniques and sets of clinical data.

That will change with the new PAIN. The aim is for the network to include information from more than a thousand patients, including both adults and children.

In addition to brain scans, researchers will also have access to  patient metadata, including symptom measures; psychosocial factors; gene expression; immune system information; data on bacteria in the intestines, known as gut microbiota; and environmental data. Researchers can then develop large, overlapping data sets to pinpoint similarities and differences among chronic-pain conditions and correlate brain scans with clinical metadata.

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