Science

Experimental brain implant instantly detects and relieves pain

Experimental brain implant ins...
New research is a very early step towards a brain implant that can detect and suppress pain in real time
New research is a very early step towards a brain implant that can detect and suppress pain in real time
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New research is a very early step towards a brain implant that can detect and suppress pain in real time
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New research is a very early step towards a brain implant that can detect and suppress pain in real time

Researchers from the New York University School of Medicine have developed a brain implant designed to detect pain sensations in real-time and deliver bursts of pain-relieving stimulation. The device is still deeply experimental but a new proof of concept study demonstrates it working effectively in rodent models.

In the world of brain implants the chasm between science fiction and reality is still quite vast. Apart from some exciting human tests showing paralyzed individuals with implants regaining a sense of touch or controlling computers with their mind, most research in the field is still nascent.

Animal tests have demonstrated incremental technological advances, such as pigs broadcasting neural activity or monkeys playing Pong. Now, an interface that can detect pain signals in one part of the brain and immediately respond with stimulation to another part of the brain targeted to relieve that pain has been developed.

The system is called a closed-loop brain-machine interface. These devices have previously been explored for detecting and treating epileptic seizures but this is the first time the system has been used to treat pain.

The experimental device proposed in the study interfaces with two brain regions. An electrode array detects and decodes pain signals in the anterior cingulate cortex, while an optogenetic system stimulates pyramidal neurons in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex to provide pain relief. This creates a real-time neurofeedback loop suppressing pain as soon as it arises.

Jing Wang, senior author on the new study, says the automated nature of the system reduces the risk of overuse and tolerance because subjects have no control over activation of the pain relief. Plus, as the system focuses on inhibiting pain processing in the brain it shouldn’t be tied up with the opioid reward regions known to cause addiction problems.

In rodent tests the researchers report the device effectively detected pain sensations 80 percent of the time. This included a variety of different kinds of pain inputs, from mechanical or thermal pain to inflammatory and neuropathic pain.

The system was also effective at inhibiting a number of sensory and behavioral pain responses in the animals, suggesting it was indeed offering acute pain relief. One test, for example, showed the animals withdrawing their paws from a source of pain significantly more slowly with the implant switched on. This indicates the intensity of pain sensations are reduced by the device.

"Our findings show that this implant offers an effective strategy for pain therapy, even in cases where symptoms are traditionally difficult to pinpoint or manage," notes Wang.

Of course, this research is still deeply experimental and nowhere near some kind of real-world pain-relieving brain implant for humans. Aside from any physiological hurdles yet to be overcome in actually implanting this kind of technology into human brains, the researchers are frank about the challenges translating this idea.

Humans do not have clearly delineated areas of the brain that singularly manage and process pain, so more research will be needed to home in on the ideal regions to target detection and treatment systems. It is also inevitable that general brain stimulation of certain regions will have non-specific effects beyond pain control. So for this to be at all useful in humans the researchers will need to improve the specificity of the technology.

Nevertheless, this conceptual demonstration points to an incredible array of future possibilities for closed-loop brain implants tracking any number of different inputs in real-time and delivering instant therapeutic neuromodulation in response. Qiaosheng Zhang, lead investigator on the project, hypothesizes a system such as this could also treat many psychiatric disorders.

"Our results demonstrate that this device may help researchers better understand how pain works in the brain," says Zhang. "Moreover, it may allow us to find non-drug therapies for other neuropsychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress."

The new study was published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Source: NYU Langone

5 comments
5 comments
CorV8tor
This is very exciting news. So if there is pain in an area wouldn't that indicate a need for medical intervention? I really would like to hear comments on this.
Simon McCombe
Re: CorV8tor JUNE 22, 2021 07:42 AM
“This is very exciting news. So if there is pain in an area wouldn't that indicate a need for medical intervention? I really would like to hear comments on this.”

Many conditions that cause chronic or reoccurring pain either are conditions that can’t be effectively treated or the pain is the primary condition itself like nerve damage or phantom limb syndrome. While I’d prefer a non-surgical solution, people with chronic pain and their doctors have to balance the risk of addiction with the risk of suicide from perpetual agony so I think this would be a great solution for the time being. I also think that laws for pain therapy when a patient is near death should ignore policies made to protect patients from long-term addiction. If someone is dying and they need more morphine they should get more.
2Hedz
Sign me up!!! I've had debilitating chronic pain for years.
@CorV8tor pain is extremely nebulous and not well understood. Acute pain (short term) moreso, but chronic (long term) pain can arise from a variety of places, but once it takes hold it's very difficult to quell. That's because the spinal cord acts like an amplifier and the brain, the interpreter (like the DAC), even though there may not be a record playing, i.e. there may not be a "real" source of pain. Your slipped disc may have healed but you still have terrible back pain. Why? No one knows. It is not well understood how the spinal cord does the amplification nor how the brain does the interpretation. Another analogy is that of an overly sensitive smoke alarm. There's no fire. But the alarm is constantly on. But looks like the researchers are making progress!
michael_dowling
"If someone is dying and they need more morphine they should get more". Simon McCombe: I believe the practice is now to give adequate pain to get relief in terminal cancer patients. It used to be pain relief was administered on a schedule,for some reason.
ljaques
Drs. Wang and Mazzia, please bring this into reality for the world. Hundreds of millions of people who suffer in pain daily would bless you for it.