"Tuning" the Brain May Relieve Pain

New research from the U.K. suggests that if the brain is “tuned in” to a particular frequency, pain can be alleviated.

Scientists at the University of Manchester believe the study could have a significant impact given the high incidence of chronic pain.

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for more than six months. Unfortunately, 20-50 percent of the general population has chronic pain with the condition estimated to comprise 20 percent of medical consultations.

Aging is often accompanied by pain with 62 percent of the U.K. population over 75 years old suffering from it. Chronic pain is often a mixture of recurrent acute pains and chronic persistent pain.

Unfortunately, there are very few treatments available that are completely safe, particularly in the elderly.

Nerve cells on the surface of the brain are coordinated with each other at a particular frequency depending on the state of the brain. Alpha waves which are tuned at nine to 12 cycles per second have been recently associated with enabling parts of the brain concerned with higher control to influence other parts of the brain.

For instance, researchers at the Human Pain Research Group at Manchester found that alpha waves from the front of the brain, the forebrain, are associated with placebo analgesia. As such, they may be influence how other parts of the brain process pain.

This led to the idea that if the brain can be tuned to express more alpha waves, perhaps some kinds of pain can be reduced.

Researchers have shown that this can be done by providing volunteers with goggles that flash light in the alpha range or by sound stimulation in both ears phased to provide the same stimulus frequency.

They found that both visual and auditory stimulation significantly reduced the intensity of pain induced by laser-heat repeatedly shone on the back of the arm.

Professor Anthony Jones, director of the Manchester Pain Consortium, said, “This is very exciting because it provides a potentially new, simple and safe therapy that can now be tested in patients.”

Further studies are required to test the effectiveness in patients with different pain conditions but the simplicity and low cost of the technology should facilitate such clinical studies.

Dr. Chris Brown from the University of Liverpool said, “It is interesting that similar results were obtained with visual and auditory stimulation, which will provide some flexibility when taking this technology into patient studies.

“For instance, this might be particularly useful for patients having difficulty sleeping because of recurrent pain at night.”

The paper appears in the European Journal of Pain.

Source: Manchester University