Objectively measuring physical pain has been impossible. Doctors have relied on a patient’s self-report. And when asked to compensate accident victims for pain and suffering, so have juries.

But all that may soon change. Recently Stanford University researchers have used brain images and computer technology to assess pain.  In this study, a computer was “trained” to read brain images and assess pain levels. The researchers began by taking brain images of participants who were presented with painful and non-painful stimuli. The patterns of brain activity provided an objective physiologic assessment of whether someone is experiencing pain. The computer was 81% accurate at distinguishing painful v. non-painful stimuli.

Clinically, this tool will be most helpful to detect pain in infants, seniors with dementia, and sedated patients. But practically, it may lead to advances in pain management while establishing the credibility of victims who report they are living with ongoing pain.