Can stimulating the brain treat chronic pain? The answer is, miraculously . . . yes. For the first time, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine showed they could target one brain region with a weak alternating current of electricity, enhance the naturally occurring brain rhythms of that region, and significantly decrease symptoms associated with chronic lower back pain.
Senior author Flavio Frohlich, PhD, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation and associate professor of psychiatry, says the pain research field has focused largely on peripheral causes of chronic pain. For example, if you have chronic lower back pain, then the cause and solution lie in the lower back and related parts of the nervous system in the spine.
But some researchers and clinicians believe chronic pain runs deeper, that the condition can reorganize how cells in the nervous system communicate with each other, including networks of neurons in the brain. Over time, the theory goes, these networks get stuck in a kind of neural rut, essentially becoming a cause of chronic pain.
So, the research bears out that targeting a specific part of the brain with weak alternating current of electricity significantly decreased chronic lower back pain in all participants of a small clinical trial.
The results, published in the Journal of Pain and presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego this week, suggest that doctors could one day target parts of the brain with new noninvasive treatment strategies, such as transcranial alternating current stimulation, or tACS, which researchers used in this study to boost the naturally occurring brain waves they theorized were important for the treatment of chronic pain.
“We’ve published numerous brain stimulation papers over several years, and we always learn something important,” said senior author Flavio Frohlich, PhD, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation and associate professor of psychiatry. “But this is the first time we’ve studied chronic pain, and this is the only time all three elements of a study lined up perfectly. We successfully targeted a specific brain region, we enhanced or restored that region’s activity, and we correlated that enhancement with a significant decrease in symptoms.”