November 15, 2011
Mirror mirror on the wall, relieve me of pain once and for all
This nerd-tastic event attracts a bevy (over 30,000, to be more precise) of the best and brightest in brain research under one roof once a year. This year's meeting is in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately for me, I am not in attendance; but fortunately for myself and, hopefully, my readers, new research radiating from this meeting gives me some great material to share.
On Saturday, the first day of the meeting, a new study was described that involves tricking arthritis sufferers with mirrors to alleviate their pain. Wait—what? Mirrors?
This technique of "mirror therapy" creates an illusion in which a healthy hand (in this case, that of lead researcher Laura Case's) is reflected where the sufferer's sore hand should be. Mimicking a series of motions strengthens the sensation of swapped appendages.
In this study, eight volunteers were recruited, each with either osteo- or rheumatoid arthritis. After experiencing the optical illusion, the participants reported an average 1.5-point reduction in pain on a 10-point scale, with some volunteers claiming as much as a 3-point drop.
Typically, this mirror illusion is performed with a volunteer's own healthy hand. Using the experimenter's hand instead, Case explains, may aid in pain reduction by removing the gnarled, sore image.
The power of vision as a placebo seems to be winning out here. Since Case's study only examined pain immediately before and after the illusion, we can't yet conclude that mirror therapy can provide lasting relief.
Can mirrors be a viable alternative to drugs? Maybe. But it's reassuring to know that there are plenty of mirrors in the world should one be snowed in this winter with a limited supply of Celebrex.
For timely updates on the Neuroscience 2011 meeting (ending Wednesday), follow @Neurosci2011 on Twitter, or join the conversation at #SfN11.
Photo courtesy WeHeartIt.