University of Michigan scientists have found a new way to harness the human body’s own natural ability to combat pain, using electrical stimulation of the brain, pointing the way toward a novel drug-free method to manage and alleviate discomfort.
The advance, reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, involved using electrodes to jolt certain regions in the brain of a patient with chronic, severe facial pain to release an opiate-like substance that's considered one of the body's most powerful painkillers.
The findings build on past studies at UM, Harvard University and the City University of New York that found electrical stimulation can ease the pain of chronic migraine patients, but couldn’t indicate why. SPECIAL: How One Deck of Cards Has Shown to Improve Memory
The new UM study helped determine what happens in the brain that decreases pain during brief sessions of electricity, said lead researcher Alexandre DaSilva, assistant professor of biologic and materials sciences at the UM School of Dentistry and director of the school's Headache & Orofacial Pain Effort Lab.
"This is arguably the main resource in the brain to reduce pain," DaSilva said. "We're stimulating the release of our [body's] own resources to provide analgesia. Instead of giving more pharmaceutical opiates, we are directly targeting and activating the same areas in the brain on which they work. [Therefore], we can increase the power of this pain-killing effect and even decrease the use of opiates in general, and consequently avoid their side effects, including addiction."
For the study, DaSilva and colleagues used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on a patient for 20 minutes during a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. Researchers were able to measure the effects of the treatment on the brain’s release of a natural substance that alters pain perception known as mu-opioid. Many painkilling drugs, including morphine, target mu-opioid.
Just one session, using a small dose of electricity, immediately improved the patient's ability to tolerate pain, the tests showed.
Next, researchers plan to investigate long-term effects of electric stimulation on the brain and identify the most effective ways to use it to manage pain.SPECIAL: How One Deck of Cards Has Shown to Improve Memory