A couple of days ago, the NYT ran an article on the use of real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to treat pain and perhaps a host of other symptoms like addiction and depression. The technology works like a kind of high-tech biofeedback:
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.
By giving users feedback about their pain, the technique attempts to create a visual representation of an individual's pain. That's pretty impressive! But imagine if we could make interpersonal judgments of pain. That could really change the way we identify malingerers and the way we calculate damages in court. As I've noted, I think that new neurotechnologies may someday move us in that direction.