Years after they lose an arm or leg, amputees’ brains still carry an image of the missing limb that can be exactly the same as the image of the real limb, according to new U.K. research.
A group of 18 amputees took part in the study. The MRI imaging results showed that the people with the most phantom pain in their missing limbs also had the most realistic picture of the limb in their brains.
“Almost all people who have lost a limb have some sensation that it is still there, and it’s thought that around 80 percent of amputees experience some level of pain associated with the missing limb,” said study lead author Tamar Makin at Oxford University in a press release.
The researchers observed what happened in the participants’ brains when they moved their phantom fingers. Many of their brains represented the limbs exactly as if they were real.
The part of the brain that controlled the phantom limb was smaller than normal in the amputees, but for those with a lot of phantom pain, the difference wasn’t as noticeable.
It wasn’t clear whether the brain differences caused the phantom pain or vice versa. The researchers hope that their findings might lead to treatments for phantom pain, which can be debilitating.
“Imagine you are wearing a lady’s evening glove that stretches from the fingers up the arm past the elbow,” study participant Lynn Ledger explained in the release.
“But everywhere the glove covers, it’s as if it’s constantly crushing your arm. There are also shooting pains and intensely painful burning sensations that come and go, but the crushing pain is constant.”
Although the local brain structure and function for the missing limb remained, other connections in the brain appear to be disrupted.
“This disconnect between the physical world and what they are experiencing appears to be linked to a functional detachment in the brain,” Makin said.
“There seem to be reduced connections between the missing limb part of the brain and the rest of the cortex that’s involved in movement.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications on March 5.
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