Electrical stimulation blocks chronic pain, could replace opioid drugs


Original news release was first published at EurekAlert.

The abuse of opioid drugs that help chronic patients ease their pain has reached epidemic proportions. World Health Organization’s 2014 report states that in the year 2010, estimated 16 651 deaths were caused by prescription opioid overdose just in the United States. In a similar vein – in 2014, nearly two million Americans abused or were dependant on opioid medicines, and between years 1999 and 2014, around 165,000 have died from opioid overdose, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control.

These numbers were enough to get the White House’s attention, but a research team from the University of Texas at Arlington already seems to have an alternative solution – electrical stimulation of deep brain structures that block pain signals at the spinal cord level without drug intervention.

“This is the first study to use a wireless electrical device to alleviate pain by directly stimulating the ventral tegmental area of the brain,” said Yuan Bo Peng, UTA psychology professor. “While still under laboratory testing, this new method does provide hope that in the future we will be able to alleviate chronic pain without the side effects of medications.”

In addition to easing the pain, the process also sets off a release of dopamine, which helps mitigate the emotional distress that a disease-ridden patient is subjected to every day.

The research team, led by Yuan Bo Peng and J.-C. Chiao, has used their patented wireless device to demonstrate in experimental conditions, that electrical stimulation of ventral tegmental area of the brain operates on the level of spinal cord, essentially blocking the pain. This way, the patient is taken out of the equation, and is being treated passively, while he or she goes on with their everyday life.

This approach has until now been studied primarily in the area of positive reinforcement and drug abuse, but never pain alleviation. Proving that electrical brain stimulation can have analgesic effect is quite promising in and of itself. Just take another a look at the death toll.

Michal Dudic

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