Artificial intelligence and computer modelling are revolutionising research into lower back pain

The University of Oulu is participating in an extensive international research project that uses tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and computer modelling to explore the significance of intervertebral disc degeneration in lower back pain. Funding from European Commission is used to hire early-stage researchers who will be trained to apply what they have learned during the project to other national diseases.

According to current understanding, lower back pain is a complex issue where biological, psychological and social factors affect the experience of pain and the resulting adverse effects. Intervertebral disc degeneration explains some instances of lower back pain, but disc degeneration has also been diagnosed in asymptomatic persons.

“Using current methods, we cannot reliably asses which imaging findings are causing the symptoms of each patient experiencing back pain. This study is significant, since it is the first one attempting to solve the mystery of lower back pain using several different scientific methods”, says Professor Jaro Karppinen.

The study has received nearly EUR 4 million in funding from the European Commission's Research Executive Agency (REA) for the purpose of recruiting 15 early-stage researchers from the Innovative Training Networks (ITN) Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme. Participants from the University of Oulu are the research groups of Jaro Karppinen and Simo Saarakkala. Slightly over EUR 561,000 of the funding is allocated to the University of Oulu, and it is used to employ two early-stage researchers.

The project uses the capacity of supercomputers in Europe to develop new computational computer models that can be used to analyse a wide database of both cell and tissue models and demographic data. This can be used in the development of prediction and treatment models for back patients.

“For example, current interpretations of lumbar vertebrae MRIs isare based on a visual and subjective assessment performed by a physician. AI based methods can be used to standardise assessments and make physicians’ work easier. Also, it’s likely that AI will reveal imaging findings related to pain or other causalities within the material that are difficult for humans to detect”, explains Professor Simo Saarakkala.

The study has a strong multidisciplinary element. It utilises biomechanical computer modelling, genetics, cell and tissue cultivation, bioinformatics, and AI based image analysis of lumbar vertebrae. Some of the extensive demographic data has been collected from the birth cohorts of Northern Finland. A large number of lumbar spine imaging studies have been conducted in both the 1966 and the 1986 cohort.

“The University of Oulu has a significant role in the project both because of the valuable birth cohorts in Northern Finland and the university's expertise in AI based imaging”, Jaro Karppinen says.

The project was launched in November 2020 and it will last four years. New researchers will participate in joint training events, and they will be touring the organisations participating in the project in order to gain expertise that is as versatile as possible. The aim is also to promote European business activities in the sector through business cooperation.

The Disc4All project (Training network to advance integrated computational simulations in translational medicine, applied to intervertebral disc degeneration) involves 11 organisations, six of which are universities. In addition, the project has eight partner organisations. The organisations from Finland are the University of Oulu and VTT. The project is coordinated by the Pompeu Fabra University from Barcelona.

Project website

Last updated: 10.12.2020