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Could Brain Stimulation Replace Opiates?

By Sarah Beller 01/03/13

Electrically stimulating the brain may provide drug-free pain management, research suggests.

Does pain relief have a pill-free future?
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Could electricity one day overtake pain pills? New research suggests that electrical stimulation of certain brain regions may release an opiate-like substance that reduces severe pain, mimicking the effects of pharmaceutical pain-relievers. The naturally-occurring substance is a "mu-opioid," and pain relief occurs when it binds with a mu-opioid receptor—which is also how most pharmaceutical opiates (like morphine) work. “This is arguably the main resource in the brain to reduce pain,” says lead researcher Dr. Alexandre DaSilva, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “We’re stimulating the release of our (body’s) own resources to provide analgesia. Instead of giving more pharmaceutical opiates, we are directly targeting and activating the same areas in the brain on which they work." In the recent study, researchers stimulated the brain of an individual who suffered from trigeminal neuropathic pain (TNP)—a type of chronic, severe facial pain. They used a low dose of electricity—2 milliamperes (mA)—which is significantly less than the dosage of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) used to treat depression and other psychiatric conditions. After one session, the patient’s threshold for cold pain improved by 36%, but not the patient’s clinical, TNP/facial pain. This suggests that repetitive electrical stimulation over several sessions might be required to have a lasting effect on clinical pain. But if successful, says DaSilva, electrical stimulation could foreseeably be used in place of highly-addictive pharmaceutical painkillers.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.

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