Electricity Instead of Drugs for Pain Relief

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Because one of the most troubling routes to addiction is the treatment of chronic pain with opioids like morphine or oxycodone, researchers have been looking for ways to directly stimulate our natural pain relief mechanisms. One such method is sending electrical currents through certain areas of the brain.

Each of us produces opioid-like substances that can help reduce pain. These natural painkillers bind to the same sites in our brains that poppy-derived drugs do. Research out of the University of Michigan and elsewhere has already shown that small doses of electricity can help migraine sufferers, and this new research helps pin down just what’s going on.

How Electrical Techniques Work

The treatments are called “transcranial direct current stimulation,” or tDCS for short. This technique is non-invasive. Electrodes are attached outside of the brain, and current is sent through different parts to achieve different effects. Since neurons in the brain use electricity to transmit signals, tDCS can override normal signals to produce different effects. Another method uses a strong magnetic field to achieve similar results.

In this study, the researchers looked specifically at how the treatments were affecting opioid receptors by giving a radio-labeled opioid after the treatment. A radio-labeled chemical is one that has radioactive elements so that it can be tracked by a PET scan.

If natural pain-relieving compounds were already present, the radio-labeled drug wouldn’t have a place to bind or bind less. In this way, they were able to show that the electrical stimulation did block the synthetic opioid. Just as importantly, they were able to show where in the brain effects were occurring.

Dr. Alexandre DaSilva, one of the researchers, commented in Medical News Today about the importance of the study:

"This is arguably the main resource in the brain to reduce pain," DaSilva said. "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."

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