A team of international researchers headed up by the University of Michigan has used noninvasive transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to release endogenous opioids — the human body’s most powerful, euphoria-inducing painkillers that are very similar to opiates such as morphine. This approach is significant because releasing these opioids is as simple as strapping a couple of damp sponges to your scalp and attaching a 9-volt battery.
tDCS is a new application of neuroscience that is frankly a little bit scary. Basically, by applying a very small current to your scalp (2 milliamps), you can alter the behavior of neurons in your brain. When we’ve written about tDCS before, it has been used to alter the speed at which your neurons fire, and to alter their neuroplasticity — in other words, tDCS can make you react faster, and learn things faster. This is proven, and has already been used by DARPA to speed up the training of military snipers.
Now, it seems, researchers — led by Alexandre DaSilva of the University of Michigian — have found that tDCS, when the electrodes are placed above the motor cortex, releases endogenous μ-opioid. In their study, the patient’s threshold for pain improved by 36%. Clinical pain, caused by conditions such as migraine, was not reduced — but the researchers seem confident that repeated uses of tDCS would also reduce clinical, chronic pain. By boosting the release of natural painkillers, less pharmaceutical opiates are required for managing pain, thus reducing the side effects and the risk of addiction.
Moving forward, DaSilva’s group just finished a larger study that seems to confirm these findings, but further analysis is still required. The team will then move onto long-term trials, to see if chronic pain can be reduced or quashed by tDCS — and whether stimulating different regions of the brain has different effects, or is better for treating patients with different maladies.
At this point, if you’re a tech nerd, you’re probably wondering if you could perform the same trick at home, and get high on your body’s own opioids. In short, yes you could — you could buy a tDCS kit, build it, strap in, and turn the voltage up to 11. But, while this site is indeed called ExtremeTech, we really should suggest that you don’t try this one at home. Leave it to the professionals.
Research paper: doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00093 – “Immediate effects of tDCS on the μ-opioid system of a chronic pain patient”