Totally trippy: A group of neuroscience researchers succeeded in releasing natural opiate-like substances from the brain using a constant low electrical current. This gives self-medicating a new meaning.
A group from the University of Michigan, Harvard, and CUNY led by senior researcher Alexandre DaSilva and Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, experimented with an application called “transcranial direct current stimulation” or tDCS. They studied a patient with severe chronic facial pain, first administering a radiotracer and then applied electrodes that stimulated a specific area of the skull with a very small current for 20 minutes.
That current released the brain’s natural painkillers known as endogenous opioids. One session improved the patient’s pain threshold by 36 percent, according to an article (full article link) the researchers published recently in the journal Frontiers in Neuropsychiatric Imaging and Stimulation. A PET scan during the session showed what was happening.
While that first session didn’t alleviate the clinical pain, the researchers think that repeated sessions would have a lasting effect. According to Michigan University’s news service, another study on more patients was just completed and initial results showed that more tDCS did help.
Brain stimulation might have crazy uses beyond treating pain. The BBC’s Tom Feilden reported last year that tDCS has the potential to enhance overall cognitive performance, depending on where the current is applied. Try that one on for size.
For now, though, I think it’s good that scientists are focusing on tDCS for people who have mind-melting pain. Imagine being able to book tDCS sessions instead of taking strong medications, which have all kinds of side effects and can be addicting. Maybe our brains already contain the cure.
Photo: An example of a positron emission tomography (PET) brain scan. Credit: TRIUMF Lab