Yes, yes, my friends, it is true. It was Dr. Frankenstein that led me on my first voyage into the neuroscience frontier. This Frankenstein however, was female, of German background and interestingly enough, received a degree at the the same university I did. Dr. Frankenstein has been around this whole time… in fact, she works in the pink buildings across the street from the university. Life is fabulously strange. Now for those of you who are only familiar with the more recent representations of Frankenstein, you may be confused since you must think that Frankenstein was the monster and not the man who created him. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein is indeed the doctor, the mad scientist who created without asking the important question of whether he should. One of my most favourite places in the world is the place where Shelley wrote that novel, the mysterious and beautiful city of Montreux, Switzerland. I remember walking in the rainy mist along the lake waiting for my hostel to open and thinking, “wow, I totally understand why that story came out of this place.” I don’t know quite why I thought that, but I digress… sentimental backpacker reflections do not belong here. Although I think that she was doing drugs at the same time, so perhaps I can’t give Montreux all the credit…
“The Brain and Pain.” I found myself thinking about how silly it was that I am a person who experiences pain on a high level everyday and yet I never ever thought about understanding pain itself. I just accepted it was there. It’s part of life, part of the way my body functions, so why even waste the energy on finding out more. I thought, pain is subjective anyway, it cannot be measured into one sensation and the emotional components make it even more complicated… it just seemed like a useless task. Oh, human beings and the ignorant bliss they love to keep warm in.
I won’t bore you with all the technical stuff, but basically pain is a “multi-modal network,” which means that you cannot trace it back to just one part of the brain. It’s everywhere, baby, it goes and comes from everywhere. And just to make things more confusing, it even happens when there is no pain source. There is this chunk of grey matter in the mid-brain that plays an important part in pain control. Apparently, scientists discovered that if they stimulated that part of the brain during surgery, anesthetic was not required! This surgery was on a rat, mind you, but still, that’s pretty incredible. As a side note, I found it very interesting that a cross section of a spinal cord is a butterfly shape… it is also the symbol of Lupus organizations and the rash on my face bears the same name.
Dr. F talked about the different ways of pain control, most of which will not surprise you: Distraction, Medication, Acupuncture, Meditation and the last resort if nothing works, Neurostimulation. She shared with us very interesting studies on distraction techniques and about this virtual reality snow world video game that burn victims play when they need to get their bandages removed and changed. Studies show that those who played the game had significantly lower pain ratings than those who didn’t. The study also compared playing the virtual reality game to just playing nintendo and it didn’t even compare at all. The nintendo did very little in decreasing the pain ratings of patients. Did the virtual reality part of the game make a difference? Was it that it was a snow world and that the “coldness” helped to counteract the “burn” of their burns? Psychology and science and technology at it’s best? Well, it is fascinating at the very least.
I found the acupuncture portion particularly interesting because I have had two treatments already and I am under the belief that it has helped me greatly. I feel less agitated and I am finally able to nap more than 10 minutes. I stay in bed and relax and even snooze till 12 noon sometimes, which is a huge change. The hyperness caused by my steroids usually has me out of bed right away, literally jumping out of my bed to start my 20 hour days. My steroid dose was lowered by 10 mg before my last chemo but I am still on a very high dose. It could not have caused this big of a change. I mean, my moon face is still expanding and I am growing peach fuzz on my forehead. What more can I say? Anyway, studies show that there is an added element to the effectiveness of acupuncture – the power of positive expectations. Those who had low expectations did not benefit as much as those who did. They also did this study with a “fake acupuncture” and there was no benefit to either group which means that the acupuncture itself was shown as a valid medical practice. Well, Chinese medicine is all about positive “chi,” right? So, if you have negative chi then of course you won’t benefit as much. Isn’t that the way with everything in life anyhow? You know, the whole “self-fulfilling prophecy” thing? If you think it’s going to suck, it will. So simple, right? And I am sure this study has made some of you roll your eyes and say, “Oh God, here’s that “power of positive thinking” thing again. Give me a freaking break!” Sure, it’s warm and fuzzy and cliche, but I don’t know people… I am starting to think that we have more control over things in our lives than we think… why not our bodies too?
I think that the meditation pain control technique is the most powerful of all. Studies done with “expert meditators” and “amateur meditators” show without a doubt that meditation not only increases a person’s pain threshold, but also lowers pain ratings consistently. During the study, the amateur meditators were eventually able to maintain levels close to the experts. We do have the power within us, the strength within us to heal from within. It’s just too bad we live in a world where the “easy way” has the rule of the land and discipline has been associated with a hard life devoid of fun and happiness. I won’t go into the last way of pain control, the one that you can resort to if 1 – 4 doesn’t work, because we all know what that’s all about, getting some machine to do the work for you. We usually go straight to number five anyway… I mean, who has time to actually try those things anyway? Isn’t meditation a life long practice kind of thing? Forget it, right? Right.
I won’t talk about meds either. That’s pretty self-explanatory. And I know that if I talk about it I will start a rant about how absolutely horrible steroids are and how my fuzzy forehead makes me feel like Michael J. Fox in that 80’s movie, “Teen Wolf” or how I am already thinking of ways to cover up the appearance of a steroidal humpback should it appear or that the blood clots in my hand actually make me very nervous and I hate that they happen to be in a spot that ensures that I see them constantly all day. See? That was totally the rant I was talking about.
I had a chance to talk to the professor who set up these sessions and he kindly took the time to listen to my situation. I asked him why my scans didn’t show anything and he said he believed that my situation is more complex and that just as pain is multi-modal, he believes that the damage in my brain is wide spread and more “fibre” based. Dr. F is part of the research team that is creating these amazing magnetic x rays that have the capability to detect the complexities of conditions like mine… and it’s all happening right here in Winnipeg. Again, I must say, who would have known? I was in a building where there are magnets a billion times more powerful than that of the magnetic pull of the Earth.
And yet, as I marveled at the ingenuity of man, I felt a nagging pull deep down in the pit of my stomach. It was the very same feeling I had as a child watching Jurassic Park for the first time, discovering in horror what happens when mankind struts arrogantly in the face of nature. It is the same with our dear Dr. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s tortured scientist. Can we really be sure that our best intentions are just that? Is that our fatal flaw, our arrogance in the fact that we can, our blatant disregard for whether we should? Should we even try to battle nature and the diseases that she has chosen in order to somehow regain balance on this dying Earth? I need to find out more about the ethics around this whole thing. For some reason, I feel like stem cell research could be the key in curing auto-immune diseases like Lupus, but I don’t know enough about it to make a comment on it ethically or scientifically. It is my hope that one day our medical system and society will be one that is preventative and holistic in it’s essence and that the reactive battle that we are waging will have a smaller part to play… but I am a dreamer, my friends. An idealist dreamer with a screwed up brain. Who would ever listen to me?