Electricity on the brain prompts discharge of opiate-like substance

Imagine the woes of a trigeminal neuropathic pain (TNP) sufferer.

Severe, chronic facial agony is the norm and a singular reliable remedy remains clandestine. Coping with the nuisances becomes an involuntary mechanism — and then one day a charge experiment changes everything. Upon first voltage, an opiate-like substance is generated from within and the accustomed headaches and other discomforts plummet in severity.

This is your brain on electricity.

According to the latest research, brief sessions of electricity (ranging from 200 to 1600 milliamperes, the same small amount used to treat depression and other psychiatric conditions) can offer some patients with TNP consistent refuge from their struggle by activating the brain in an opiate-euphoric fashion. 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 — and the rest of his team continued along the same current as had previous investigators from the University of Michigan, Harvard University and the City University of New York, intravenously engaging a radiotracer which, in turn, effected various trigger regions in the brain.

Electrodes were used to stimulate the skull — in a process referred to as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) — above the motor cortex of the brain for 20-minute intervals during PET scans. The radiotracers therein measured and quantified the brain’s release level of mu-opioid.

"This is arguably the main resource in the brain to reduce pain," DaSilva said in a news release. "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. [Therefore], we can increase the power of this pain-killing effect and even decrease the use of opiates in general, and consequently avoid their side effects, including addiction."

To engage the mu-opioid receptors in the brain without the use of pharmaceuticals could very well alter dependency issues and the ways in which certain pain can/should be treated, DaSilva noted.

The study’s results suggest potential promise regarding the repeated, albeit contained, utilization of electricity when treating chronic pain: “Just one session immediately improved the patient's threshold for cold pain by 36 percent, but not the patient's clinical, TNP/facial pain. This suggests that repetitive electrical stimulation over several sessions are required to have a lasting effect on clinical pain as shown in their previous migraine study.”

DaSilva’s cohort and others with similar interest, hope to soon look into the long-term effects of electric stimulation therapy on various other pain conditions, with patients of differing health statuses.

The manuscript was published in the latest edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.