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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Scientists are working on a way to use AI to create quantitative measurements for chronic pain.

Why it matters: Chronic pain is an epidemic in the U.S., but doctors can't measure discomfort as they can other vital signs. Building methods that can objectively measure pain can help ensure that the millions in need of palliative care aren't left to suffer.

What's happening: Late last month, scientists from IBM and Boston Scientific presented new research outlining a framework that uses machine learning and activity monitoring devices to capture and analyze biometric data that can correspond to the perception of pain.

  • The researchers are using biomarkers collected in clinical studies involving patients undergoing spinal cord stimulation, including information on movement collected from smartwatches, sleep data, heart rate levels and even voice recordings.
  • AI is being employed to sift through the results in the hopes of identifying patterns that might enable doctors to "read" a patient's pain levels through that more granular data.

What they're saying: "We want to use all the tools of predictive analytics and get to the point where we can predict where people's pain is going to be in the future, with enough time to give doctors the chance to intervene," says Jeff Rogers, senior manager for digital health at IBM Research.

Background: According to one estimate, more than 100 million Americans struggle with chronic pain, at an annual cost of as much as $635 billion in painkillers and lost productivity.

  • Yet doctors' methods for pain measurement remain rudimentary, like asking patients to report their pain on a scale of 1 to 10, or even just pointing to cartoon faces with different emotions.

What's next: Rogers hopes the research can lead to medical devices that could predict chronic pain signals ahead of suffering and adjust their response accordingly.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

CDC panel recommends Pfizer boosters for high-risk individuals, people 65 and up

Photo: Marco Bello/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A key panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus booster shots for people 65 years old and older, as well as those at high risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: The approval is the near-final step in making the booster shots available to tens of millions of Americans, and comes a day after the FDA approved Pfizer boosters for the two groups. CDC director Rochelle Walensky is expected to announce her recommendation soon.

DHS temporarily suspends use of horse patrol in Del Rio

U.S. Border Patrol agents watch as Haitian immigrant families cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into Del Rio, Texas on Sept. 23, 2021. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday temporarily suspended the use of horse patrol in Del Rio, Texas a DHS spokesperson confirmed.

Why it matters: The suspension comes after images showing border patrol agents whipping at and charging their horses at migrants surfaced earlier in the week, prompting widespread criticism of the Biden administration's handling of the crisis at the border.

Southwest drought is worst on record, NOAA finds

In a stark new report, a team of NOAA and independent researchers found the 2020-2021 drought across the Southwest is the worst in the instrumental record, which dates to 1895.

Why it matters: They also concluded that global warming is making it far more severe, primarily by increasing average temperatures, which boosts evaporation.