Researchers use electricity to give patients opiate high

Researchers have found a way to give patients with severe facial pain a natural high.

Through the use of electricity, doctors at the University of Michigan, Harvard University and the City University of New York , have created a method of stimulating the brain to produce an opiate like substance in migraine patients, one of the body’s most powerful painkillers.

Although they are yet to completely work out how our why this happens, Alexandre DaSilva, assistant professor of biologic and materials sciences at the U-M School of Dentistry and director of the school’s Headache & Orofacial Pain Effort Lab, said the findings would go some way to explaining what happens in the brain that decreases pain during the brief sessions of electricity

During the study, DaSilva and his fellow doctors processed electricity through sensors on the patient’s skulls, and intravenously administered a radiotracer that reached important brain areas. They applied the electrodes and electrically stimulated the skull right above the motor cortex of the patient for 20 minutes during a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

The stimulation is known in medical circles as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

The radiotracer was specifically designed to measure, indirectly, the local brain release of mu-opioid, a natural substance that alters pain perception, which the researchers said was a better option of offering patients “pharmaceutical opiates” and avoiding side effects such as addiction.

DaSilva said the risks were low because the dose of electricity being administered is “very small”. 

Compared to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is used to treat depression and other psychiatric conditions, using amperage in the brain ranging from 200 to 1600 milliamperes (mA), the tDCS protocol used in DaSilva’s study delivered 2 mA.

One session apparently immediately improved the patient’s threshold for cold pain by 36 percent. However, it didn’t do much for the patient’s clinical, TNP/facial pain, but the researchers suggested that repetitive stimulation over several sessions is required to have a lasting effect.

Next, they will investigate long-term effects of electric stimulation on the brain and find specific targets in the brain that may be more effective depending on the pain condition and patients’ status.

For example, the frontal areas may be more helpful for chronic pain patients with symptoms of depression.