Scientists at The University of Manchester have shown for the first time that if the brain is 'tuned-in' to a particular frequency, pain can be alleviated. Chronic pain — any pain which lasts for more than six months — is a real problem for many people, with 20-50 percent of the general population estimated to suffer from it. Chronic pain is often a mixture of recurrent acute pains and chronic persistent pain. Unfortunately there are very few treatments available that are completely safe, particularly in the elderly.
Nerve cells on the surface of the brain are co-ordinated with each other at a particular frequency depending on the state of the brain. Alpha waves which are tuned at 9-12 cycles per second have been recently associated with enabling parts of the brain concerned with higher control to influence other parts of the brain.
For instance researchers at the Human Pain Research Group at The University of Manchester found that alpha waves from the front of the brain, the forebrain, are associated with placebo analgesia and may be influencing how other parts of the brain process pain.
This led to the idea that if we can 'tune' the brain to express more alpha waves, perhaps we can reduce pain experienced by people with certain conditions.
The team behind the research has shown that this can be done by providing volunteers with goggles that flash light in the alpha range or by sound stimulation in both ears phased to provide the same stimulus frequency. They found that both visual and auditory stimulation significantly reduced the intensity of pain induced by laser-heat repeatedly shone on the back of the arm.
This provides a potentially new, simple and safe therapy that can now be trialed in patients. Further studies are required to test the effectiveness in patients with different pain conditions but the simplicity and low cost of the technology should facilitate such clinical studies.