Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX faculty publishes paper on the impact of back pain on brain networks

November 6th, 2019
Dr. Gurpreet Matharoo

Chronic back pain continues to represent a major clinical, social and economic problem for societies worldwide. Now new research from StFX is looking into the impact of back pain on brain networks. 

Dr. Gurpreet Matharoo, a research consultant with ACENET at StFX and a part-time instructor who has taught undergraduate courses in StFX’s physics, engineering, and earth sciences departments, recently published a paper on the issue in Physica A, a journal published by Elsevier, the result of an interdisciplinary study that uses fundamental physics, health science, neuroscience, and computer science to study the issue. 

In the publication titled, “Spontaneous back-pain alters randomness in functional connections in large scale brain networks: A random matrix perspective,” Dr. Matharoo and co-author Dr. Javeria Hashmi use ideas from Random Matrix Theory (RMT) of Physics to study brain networks impacted by back pain. 

The study used functional MRI scans and behavioral data for a set of patients who were monitored for a period of six months. Here, using ideas from RMT, they looked at random correlations that are inherent in brain networks and how these correlations decrease when the brain is engaged in detecting threats or experiencing discomfort from pain. 

The ability to properly detect and perceive pain is fundamental for survival and, attending to pain results in systematic changes in the brain’s functional connectivity, thereby reducing the random correlations, he says. 

Dr. Matharoo says these effects persisted six months later in patients who continued to feel back pain (chronic group), but were absent in the group of patients who recovered. 

The study, he says, highlights the importance of interdisciplinary research while underlining the importance of fundamental physics. 

Dr. Matharoo says the collaboration for this project was initiated when Dr. Hashmi met with Greg Lukeman, CTO of ACENET, with a desire to use ACENET’s and Compute Canada’s supercomputers for her research. His initial job was to parallelize the procedure to investigate functional MRI of 120 patients, which otherwise took a lot of time. In subsequent informal discussions with her, he happened to discuss Random Matrix Theory that he had used on other systems like water and amorphous solids and spoke about its potential. “She was super excited on hearing the whole thing and asked if I could try implementing on the data that I had from her. That was the start of this project,” he says. 

Dr. Matharoo says he’s pleased to have the results published. “These results form a basis for more such interdisciplinary research projects. The human brain is a fairly complex and a non-linear system, whereby neuronal interactions result in higher brain functions, and in the formation of functional networks, even in the absence of any stimuli. Hence, standard univariate techniques are insufficient, and we also need approaches from fundamental physics for a better understanding of the underlying processes in the brain.” 

Dr. Peter Marzlin, Chair of the StFX Physics Department, is enthusiastic about this new approach to using physics in health science, and supports these kinds of studies. 

The findings of the study have the potential to be extremely useful in improving treatment outcomes of many such neuro-psychiatric disorders and in determining any systematic or mechanical errors in fMRI scans, Dr. Matharoo says. 

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