It’s hard to convey the pain of a migraine to those who are fortunate enough not to suffer them. Compounding things, many sufferers get no relief from, or cannot tolerate, commonly prescribed or over-the-counter pain medications. Now researchers have shown that applying a mild electrical current to the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp can prevent migraines from occurring and reduce the severity and duration of those that do occur.
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, thirty-six million Americans suffer from migraine, with 14 million of them experiencing chronic daily headaches. Although existing brain stimulation technologies can help relieve a migraine that is already underway, the fact that chronic migraine sufferers can have over 15 attacks a month and the equipment is heavy and unwieldy makes treatment difficult.
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While some techniques that stimulate deep brain regions require brain surgery for the implantation of electrodes, the new approach relies on transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which only requires a strong connection between the skin and the electrodes. It is currently used to treat some psychological disorders, in the motor rehabilitation in stroke patients, and is safe, portable and easy to use. It might also improve your mathematical skills for up to six months.
A team, including Dr. Marom Bikson, associate professor of biomedical engineering in CCNY’s Grove School of Engineering, Dr. Alexandre DaSilva at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and Dr. Felipe Fregni at Harvard Medical School, found that repeated tDCS sessions reduced the duration and pain intensity of migraines that did occur by an average of around 37 percent.
“We developed this technology and methodology in order to get the currents deep into the brain,” said Bikson. “If it’s possible to help some people get just 30 percent better, that’s a very meaningful improvement in quality of life.”
According to the team’s computational models, tDCS delivers a therapeutic current along the brain’s pain network, a collection of interconnected brain regions involved in perceiving and regulating pain. The team says the technology seems to reverse ingrained changes in the brain caused by chronic migraine, such as greater sensitivity to headache triggers.
The improvements accumulated over the four weeks of treatment, with the effects lasting for months. The only side effect reported by the test subjects was a mild tingling sensation experienced when receiving the treatment. Professor Bikson says a patient could potentially use the system every day to ward off attacks, or periodically, like a booster shot.
“You can walk around with it and keep it in your desk drawer or purse. This is definitely the first technology that operates on just a 9-volt battery and can be applied at home,” said Bikson, who envisions the future development of units as small as an iPod.
The team now plans to scale up clinical trials to a larger study population on the path to hopefully developing a market-ready version of the tDCS in a few years.
The team has published the results of their recent study in the journal Headache.
Source: City College of New YorkView gallery - 2 images