Tuning the brain's frequency helps people better endure getting shot with a laser

Tuning the brain to the right frequency might be all it takes to reduce chronic pain(Credit: Andreus/Depositphotos)

It sounds like something more suited to an android than a human being: Tuning our central processing center (that would be our brain) by using pulses of light or sound to get rid of distress. But that's exactly what researchers at the University of Manchester (UM) have done. By inducing a particular series of brain waves, they were able to reduce pain in subjects getting beamed by a heat-inducing laser beam.

Similar to the way in which the air around us is filled with signals from cell towers and radio broadcasters, the space between our ears is also alive with electrical waves. In fact, different areas of our brains can communicate with each other on five different types of frequencies: delta waves (.5 to 3 Hz), theta waves (4 Hz to 8 Hz), alpha waves (8 to 12 Hz), beta waves (12-30 Hz), and gamma waves (25 to 100 Hz).

Of those four sets of brain-based oscillations, alpha waves have been linked to increased creativity, reduced anxiety and better memory function, and the waves have been shown to be present in an increased level during calming activities like meditation. It's also been discovered that alpha waves generated in the front of the brain from receiving a placebo analgesic could influence the way other brain regions process pain.

That last discovery, from the Human Pain Research Group at UM led other researchers there to want to investigate whether inducing alpha waves another way could bring about analgesic effects.

So they beamed volunteers either with pulses of light or sounds that cause the generation of alpha waves. Then they shot a heat-generating laser on the back of their arms. Sure enough, participants who got the alpha-wave stimulation reported significantly less pain from the laser beam than control participants who received non-alpha-wave stimulation. While both methods achieved pain reduction, the visual stimulation – which was carried out through goggles worn for 10 minutes before the laser was administered – was the most effective.

The researchers say that this work could lead to easy, inexpensive, drug-free ways to help people manage chronic pain.

"It is interesting that similar results were obtained with visual and auditory stimulation, which will provide some flexibility when taking this technology into patient studies," said Chris Brown, a lecturer in psychology at The University of Liverpool, who was involved in the research while working in Manchester. "For instance this might be particularly useful for patients having difficulty sleeping because of recurrent pain at night."

The video below details the research, which has been published in the European Journal of Pain.

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