May 14, 2008 Losing a limb can be a traumatic experience and, in some cases, emotional and physical pain can linger for years. To better understand the phenomenon, dubbed "phantom limb syndrome," Université de Montréal graduate student Emma Duerden is inviting amputees to come forward and share their experiences for a major study.
"Our main goal is to better understand why amputees retain the memory of pain after losing a limb," explains Ms. Duerden, who is completing her doctorate in the laboratory of Dr. Gary Duncan at the Université de Montréal's Department of Physiology and the Centre de recherche de l'Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM).
"People are born with a map of their body in their brain," she continues. "After amputation, the representation of the body part still exists -- as a type of sensory memory. The map of the body becomes distorted and previous research has shown that this 'reorganization' is linked to chronic pain. Our current goal is to study these organizational changes in the brain."
Ms. Duerden and her team will use high-resolution imaging techniques to explore the organization of the sensory maps in the brains of amputees. They will utilize new brain imaging software called real-time fMRI, which allows subjects to view their own brain activity while undergoing a scan.
"We aim to develop techniques to help return amputees' sensory map back to its original formation," says Ms. Duerden. "We believe that patients can be trained to reorganize their internal map by focusing on their brain activity. This reorganization is believed to lead to a decrease in pain."
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