By Richard Lenti
If you have vivid memories of Jack Nicholson being electroshocked in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” then you may not think of electricity as a way to alleviate pain.
But researchers at the University of Michigan say that by using electricity on certain regions of the brain, they were able to stimulate the release of an opiate-like substance that’s considered one of the body’s natural painkillers.
Their study, published in Frontiers In Psychiatry, focused on a 62-year old woman who suffered from chronic severe facial pain. She was treated with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a procedure in which patients are given mild doses of electricity through electrodes on their heads. The dose of electricity is very small when compared to the dosage administered during electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is used to treat major depression and other psychiatric conditions.
The University of Michigan study, says senior researcher Alexandre DaSilva, provides new insights into what happens in the brain when pain levels are reduced by tDCS.
“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,” said DaSilva, an assistant professor of biologic and materials sciences at the School Of Dentistry.
To monitor the effect of the electrical charge on the brain, DaSilva and his team intravenously administered a radiotracer designed to measure the brain’s release of mu-opioid, a natural substance that alters pain perception. Researchers then applied electrodes and stimulated the skull above the motor cortex of the woman’s brain for 20 minutes during a PET scan (positron emission tomography).
Just one session immediately improved the patient’s threshold for cold pain by 36 percent, but did not her severe facial pain.
DaSilva said the results suggest repetitive electrical stimulation over several sessions may be required to have a lasting effect on clinical pain such as migraines.
Because most pharmaceutical opiates target the brain’s mu-opioid receptors, researchers say the study may eventually lead to a greater understanding of how to manipulate the brain’s natural painkilling ability, along with a decrease in the use of opiates and their addictive side effects.
Next, researchers plan to investigate long-term effects of electric stimulation on the brain and identify specific areas that may be more successfully treated depending on the patient’s condition, such as targeting the frontal region to relieve chronic pain in patients with depression symptoms.
Recent studies have also shown transcranial direct current stimulation enhances learning, improves cognitive function and expands intellect.
Dr. James Fugedy, an Atlanta anesthesiologist, calls tDCS the most exciting innovation he’s experienced in 30 years of practicing medicine.
“I first used tDCS to treat fibromyalgia five years ago. Subsequently, I’ve used tDCS for migraine, complex regional pain syndrome, treatment-resistant depression, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), chronic daily headaches, bipolar disorder and stroke rehabilitation – all with good results,” said Fugedy.