Pain from migraine headaches can be reduced — and possibly even prevented — by stimulating the brain with mild electric charges from a small portable device, according to a researcher at the City College of New York’s Grove School of Engineering.
Transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, sends an electrical current to the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp. Existing brain stimulation technologies can help relieve a migraine already underway, but they often involve heavy, cumbersome equipment or require brain surgery to implant electrodes. Those afflicted with chronic migraine pain may suffer 15 or more attacks a month, making treatment a constant battle.
A small portable tDCS device would be safe, effective and easy to use, according to Dr. Marom Bikson, associate professor of biomedical engineering at CCNY. “We developed this technology and methodology in order to get the currents deep into the brain,” said Bikson. “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.”
Bikson foresees tDCS units as tiny as an iPod that patients can use every day to ward off attacks. A consumer-ready portable tDCS device is still years away, since large clinical trials would be needed.
In a pilot study conducted by Bikson, repeated tDCS sessions reduced the duration and pain intensity of migraine attacks by about 37 percent. Increasing improvements were noted after four weeks of treatment and the positive effects lasted for months. A mild tingling sensation during the electrical brain stimulation treatment was the only side effect.
“There’s something about migraine pain that’s particularly distressing,” said Bikson. “If it’s possible to help some people get just 30 percent better, that’s a very meaningful improvement in quality of life.”
Bikson says tDCS seems to reverse changes in the brain caused by repeated migraine attacks, including greater sensitivity to headaches triggers. He believes a patient could use a portable TDCS system every day to ward off attacks.
The study findings are encouraging to the 36 million Americans who suffer from migraine headaches. Many don’t get pain relief from over-the-counter medications and can’t tolerate prescription medications.
A previous study found that electrical brain stimulation could help chase away depression.
The study findings are published in the American Headache Society’s journal Headache.