The primary focus of the Hansma lab is currently on methods for retraining the brain away from chronic pain.
It may seem hard to believe that intense chronic pain that has lasted for years can be eliminated or, at least, very much reduced, by retraining your brain. But, recent breakthroughs have made it possible for many people already, including a friend of mine and me. I want to share with you how it happened.
The first step is realizing that there is helpful pain and unhelpful pain.
Helpful pain protects us. Unhelpful pain disables us. Experiencing intense pain of our lower back while lying in bed is not useful to us. Certainly not after the 3 months or so after which pretty much any repair that our body could do has been done. So why does our brain choose to pay attention to this unhelpful pain?
The second step is learning about sensitization.
After a person has experienced pain for a long time they become so sensitized that even the touch of a feather can be painful (called allodynia). And something, such as a slightly sore muscle in the lower back, which would normally be experienced as just a little sore, can be intensely painful (called hyperalgesia). How does this happen?
The brain gets better and better at producing the experience of pain with practice! Especially with lots of practice over time. Pain is not simply the brain reporting a painful event from somewhere in the body. In general, the experience of pain is created in the brain when neural pain circuits in the brain become active and the neurons begin firing action potentials, stimulating other neurons in the neural pain circuits to fire. It can become like a chain reaction, which can run with a life of its own!
A common saying among neuroscientist is: neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that as neurons fire together in producing the experience of pain, they strengthen their connections and can do a better and better job of producing the experience of pain. Repetition of a task like riding a bike or driving a car makes that task easier for the brain. Unfortunately the same is true for producing the experience of pain. So how can we retrain our brains not to produce the experience of pain when we know it is not helpful, but actually harmful?
The third step is choosing a method to retrain your brain away from pain.
Methods are described in these 3 documents:
1) Retrain your brain away from pain short version with a quick overview is available at
2) Retrain your brain away from pain long version with lots of information and references to the scientific literature is available at
3) Resources for retraining your brain away from chronic pain
are available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ElaKrW67WCBADVe8Tl-KqNkqdx_HdVd3J-Tl_bHjT4U/edit?usp=sharing
Using the Osteoprobe, the Hansma Lab's most recent development.
Clinical Trial Results of the Reference Point Indentation Instrument Published in JBMR [PDF]
The Paul Hansma Research Group has an extensive history developing Atomic Force Microscopes (AFMs) for almost twenty years. Our focus on creating AFMs especially suited for biophysical research has led to many discoveries in biomaterials. In addition to our research using AFMs, we have begun development of a mechanical Reference Point Indentation (RPI) instrument (formerly known as the Bone Diagnostic Instrument, BDI, and the Tissue Diagnostic Instrument, TDI) to measure bone fracture risk in living patients.
Using our AFM techniques we are able to explore the molecular origins of fracture resistance in mineralized tissues (primarily bone). Recently, we discovered that some noncollagenous bone proteins act as a molecular glue to resist bone fracture, using a fracture-resisting mechanism we have termed the sacrificial bond and hidden length mechanism. We are now working on characterizing this bone glue, among other research divisions on bone fracture resistance.
Our most current research involves development of medical diagnostic instruments such as the Reference Point Indentation instrument. The Reference Point Indentation instrument consists of a mechanically driven test probe enclosed in a reference probe (a hypodermic needle). The test probe is driven into the bone and creates microscopic indentations. After repeated cycling the indentation distance increase (the difference in indentation from the last and first cycle) is measured. This quantity has been shown to give the best representation of fracture risk. For more information please refer to the complete RPI webpage.