Targeting one brain region with a weak alternating current of electricity could enhance the naturally occurring brain rhythms of that region and significantly decrease symptoms associated with chronic lower back pain, suggest researchers from UNC School of Medicine.

In their study, published recently in the Journal of Pain, researchers used transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) 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,” says senior author Flavio Frohlich, PhD, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation and associate professor of psychiatry, in a media release from University of North Carolina Health Care.

“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.”

Co-first author Julianna Prim, a graduate student mentored by Karen McCulloch, PT, PhD, in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine, who works closely with Frohlich’s lab, states, “If brain stimulation can help people with chronic pain, it would be a cheap, non-invasive therapy that could reduce the burden of opioids, which we all know can have severe side effects.”

Alpha oscillations occur when people are not taking in stimuli, such as when we meditate in silence, daydream in the shower, or even when we’re “in the zone” during athletic activity.

In their study, Frohlich’s lab wanted to know if these alpha oscillations were deficient in the somatosensory cortex, located in the middle portion of the brain and likely involved in chronic pain. If so, then could the team enhance the alpha waves there and provide pain relief, they wondered.

Prim and colleagues recruited 20 patients with lower chronic back pain. Each of them reported back pain as “four” or greater for at least 6 months on the subjective scale of one to 10. Each participant volunteered for two 40-minute sessions that took place 1 to 3 weeks apart.

During all sessions, researchers attached an array of electrodes to the patients’ scalps. During one session, researchers targeted the somatosensory cortex using tACS to enhance the naturally occurring alpha waves. During another session for all participants, researchers used a similar weak electrical current that was not targeted—this was a sham or placebo stimulation session.

During all sessions, participants felt tingling on their scalp. They could not tell the difference between the sham and tACS sessions. Also, the researchers in charge of analyzing the data did not know when each participant underwent the sham or tACS sessions, making this study double-blinded, the release explains.

Data analysis suggests that the alpha oscillations in the somatosensory cortex of people with chronic lower back pain could be successfully targeted and enhanced. All of the participants reported a significant reduction in pain immediately following the tACS sessions, according to the subjective 0-10 pain scale. Some participants reported feeling no pain after the tACS sessions. Participants did not report the same pain reduction after the sham stimulation sessions, they note.

“The exciting thing is that these results occurred after just one session,” Prim says. “We hope to conduct a larger study to discover the effects of multiple tACS sessions over a longer time period.”

According to Frohlich in the release, his lab also hopes to conduct studies on people with various kinds of chronic pain.

[Source(s): University of North Carolina Health Care, Science Daily]