Could An Electrical Implant In Your Brain Help With Chronic Pain?
Many people in the chronic pain community have been understandably troubled by the debate over the use of opioids for treating chronic pain. One major reason that patients are feeling frustrated is that there aren’t very many other good options for controlling chronic pain. Luckily, a research team at the University of Texas at Arlington has been working on an alternative that shows some promise: electrical stimulation of a deep, middle brain structure that blocks pain signals at the spinal cord – without drugs.
This study is the first of its kind. It uses a custom-designed wireless electrical device to directly stimulate the ventral tegmental area of the brain. Prior to this study, this area of the brain had really only been studies for its key role in positive reinforcement, reward, and drug abuse. However, the results of this new study have allowed scientists to confirm that this particular area of the brain can also be an analgesic too – i.e. work as a painkiller.
The electrical stimulation in the University of Texas study is different from other electrical stimulation methods for several reasons. First, the wireless device would allow electrical pulses to be applied to structures deep within the brain even when the patient is freely moving around. Second, the stimulation could also potentially be user-controllable, meaning that the patient would be able to control the amount of stimulation to manage their pain. In addition to having an analgesic (or painkilling) effect, researchers have also discovered that the wireless electrical implant also triggers the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps the brain regulate emotional responses, which means that having more dopamine in a patient’s system may also help reduce the emotional distress associated with long-term pain.
The wireless electrical implant is currently still in the laboratory testing phase, meaning that so far only rats have used the device. But psychology professor Yuan Bo Peng and electrical engineering professor J.-C. Chiao have recently detailed their discoveries in an article published in the leading neuroscience journal Experimental Brain Research. Their results show promise that this new method may, someday in the future, be a possible option for alleviating chronic pain in humans without the use of medications. In addition to reducing dependency on potentially addictive painkillers like opioids, this method would also offer the benefit of eliminating the negative side effects of various pain medications. Not to mention reducing patient’s pain!
Hopefully, research into the area of chronic pain treatment will continue to advance, providing much-needed solutions and alternatives for people living with chronic pain.
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