Researchers have been exploring delivering electricity through sensors on the skulls of chronic migraine patients and have found a decrease in the intensity of pain of their headaches. A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry has shown that when electricity is sent to certain regions in the brain of a patient with chronic, severe facial pain it releases an opiate-like substance and powerful painkiller.
In the study, researchers administered a radiotracer that reached important brain areas in a patient with trigeminal neuropathic pain. They then applied electrodes and electrically stimulated the skull right above the motor cortex for 20 minutes during a PET scan which is known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
The radiotracer was designed to measure the local brain release of mu-opioid, a natural substance that alters pain perception. The researchers argue that this is the main resource in the brain to reduce brain. The purpose is to target and activate directly the areas in the brain where opiates work but with decreasing opiate use.
The tDCS protocol used in the study delievered 2 mA of electricity which is much less than the 200 to 1600 mA used in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) used to treat depression. It appears that multiple sessions are needed to have lasting effects on clinical pain.
The researchers plan to next investigate long-term effects of electric stimulation on the brain and also find specific targets in the brain that may be more effective depending on the particular patient’s pain condition and issues they are dealing with.
Source: Marcos Fabio Dos Santos and et. al., “Immediate Effects of tDCS on the μ-Opioid System of a Chronic Pain Patient,” Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2012.