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Phantom Pain

November 16, 2005

Science reporter Bob Hirshon tells us about new insights into a mysterious affliction of patients with spinal injuries.


How phantom pain haunts its victims. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Patients with spinal cord injuries sometimes feel sharp pains in their paralyzed limbs. That’s called phantom pain. Now, researchers at Yale University have traced it to a part of the brain. Neurologist Bryan Hains says the culprits appear to be nerve cells called thalamic relay neurons.

BRYAN HAINS (Yale University):
The function of the thalamic rely neurons is simply to rely pain signals from the spinal cord up towards the brain, where it’s interpreted to actually mean pain.

Normally, these signals come from an injured body part. But in the brains of rats with spinal injuries, Hains and his colleagues found relay neurons that fired for no reason. A change in the channels that regulate the neurons appears responsible, which points to possible treatments for this medical mystery.
I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.