Technology eases migraine pain in the deep brain

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May 01, 2012

Migraine pain sits at the upper end of the typical pain scale—an angry-red section often labeled “severe.” At this intensity, pain is debilitating. Yet many sufferers do not get relief from—or cannot tolerate—over-the-counter and commonly prescribed pain medications.

Recently, a team of researchers that includes Dr Marom Bikson, associate professor of biomedical engineering in CCNY’s Grove School of Engineering, has shown that a brain stimulation technology can prevent migraine attacks from occurring. Their technique, using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), applies a mild electrical current to the brain from electrodes attached to the scalp.

“We developed this technology and methodology in order to get the currents deep into the brain,” said Bikson. The researchers aimed to tap into the so-called pain network, among other areas, a collection of interconnected brain regions involved in perceiving and regulating pain.

Professor Bikson and his colleagues, including Dr Alexandre DaSilva at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and Dr Felipe Fregni at Harvard Medical School, found that the technology seems to reverse ingrained changes in the brain caused by chronic migraine, such as greater sensitivity to headache triggers.

Repeated sessions reduced the duration of attacks and decreased the pain intensity of migraines that did occur on average about 37%. The improvements accumulated over 4 weeks of treatment and they persisted.

In pilot studies, the effects lasted for months. The only side effect subjects reported was a mild tingling sensation during treatment. Professor Bikson expects that a patient could use the system every day to ward off attacks, or periodically, like a booster.

The team’s computational models show that tDCS delivers therapeutic current along the pain network through both upper (cortical) and deep brain structures. They will publish their results in the journal Headache. It is currently available online.

The tDCS technology is safe, easy to use, and portable, Professor Bikson said. “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.” He envisions future units as small as an iPod.

The next step will be to scale up clinical trials to a larger study population. A market-ready version of the tDCS is still years away.

“There’s something about migraine pain that’s particularly distressing,” noted Professor Bikson. “If it’s possible to help some people get just 30% better, that’s a very meaningful improvement in quality of life.”

Source: News Release
City College of New York
April 30, 2012