Zap Your Brain to Treat Chronic Pain?

Zap Your Brain to Treat Chronic Pain?

Many people suffering in chronic pain are taking less pain medication for a variety of reasons, and a growing number of them are zapping their skulls with a weak electric current with the hopes of reducing pain.

This so-called “brain hacking” is used to treat neurological and psychiatric symptoms using transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS).  tDCS is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and scientists are split on its efficacy, with some calling it quackery and bad science.

In Europe, tDCS therapy has regulatory approval for the treatment of fibromyalgia and migraine headache, as NPR reported earlier this year.

Why the split opinion and regulatory status on the therapy?  Until now, scientists have been unable to understand what is actually happening in the brain, but that is likely going to change due to new research from the University of Southern California.

Danny JJ Wang, a professor of neurology at the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, said his team is the first to develop an MRI method whereby the magnetic fields induced by tDCS currents can be visualized in living humans. Their results were published Oct. 4 in Scientific Reports, a Nature Publishing Group journal.

“Although this therapy is taking off at the grassroots level and in academia, evidence that tDCS does what is being promised is not conclusive,” said Wang, the study’s senior author.

“Scientists don’t yet understand the mechanisms at work, which prevents the FDA from regulating the therapy. Our study is the first step to experimentally map the tDCS currents in the brain and to provide solid data so researchers can develop science-based treatment,” he added.

“This noninvasive, easy-to-use, low-cost technology has been shown to improve cognition as well as treat clinical symptoms,” said Mayank Jog, study lead author and a graduate student conducting research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The study is a technological breakthrough, said Maron Bikson, study co-author and a professor of biomedical engineering at The City College of New York.

“You cannot characterize what you cannot see, so this is a pivotal step in the development of tDCS technology,” Bikson said.

The researchers validated their MRI algorithm with a phantom, where the current path and induced magnetic field was known. Then they tested the method using simple biological tissue: a human calf. Finally, they repeated the process on the scalp of 12 healthy volunteers.

After 20 to 30 minutes in a scanner, the new algorithm produced an image of the magnetic field tDCS created. Researchers noted that a current did enter the body and brain.  Next, scientists compared the technique with that of a computer simulation.

The phantom test highly matched the computational modeling, thus verifying the algorithm.  The brain test showed expected magnetic field changes under and between the electrodes. However, computational modeling was not performed on the brain test because there are too many variables, strengthening the argument that using computational modeling is not ideal for understanding what really happens inside people’s heads when tDCS is applied, Wang said.

“Scientists who have comprehensively studied the tDCS literature are in broad agreement that tDCS can change brain function, but that application in central health and neuro-enhancement will benefit from a deeper understanding of mechanism and enhanced technology,” Bikson said. “This study is an important step in both directions.”

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Tim Mason, I find it hard to believe the torture that we are expected to go through before receiving opioid pain medication. I fought tooth and nail to get medication that worked without too much torture. If through research I felt that a procedure didn’t have very good reports I refused it! My pain issues are varied and affect every part of my body and wasn’t going to accept torture on top of it! After years of fighting I finally found a doctor who agreed that procedures would most likely not be effective and worked with e to find medication that worked. I did have to try off label medication from prior doctors that gave me NO relief and unacceptable side effects, some of which I still suffer from such as changes in vision that cause clear sight to come and go. Now with the new guidelines the medication that worked for me without side effects are being taken from me as they are with so many people. I still refuse to be tortured and am searching for alternatives. I willingly tried things that were non invasive such as biofeedback,meditation.chiropractic etc and know that for me they’re useless. I am trying things like cbd oil, mmj (our first dispensaries just opened last week but were sold out before I got there!) and other herbals. So far I have only found a small amount of relief. I am dreading the day all my pain meds are gone but still refuse any other form of torture! I know a lot of people will disagree with me but I have enough pain without being tortured by doctors who just want to do procedures because that’s where the money is!

Tim Mason

Hey Connie,
They have actually revived the Medieval torture device called “The Rack”.
Some places call it Spinal Decompression.
It a real money maker and not covered by insurance

Kate lipford

It’s clear none of you have had any experience with this type of therapy. Great strides have been made towards curing treatment resisting depression with TMS it is not painful and is directed at a specific place in the brain.
tDCS is a weaker version of this aimed at those areas of the motor cortex which represent the position of the pain on the body. It is safe in a clinical setting and has a better chance at helping to rewire the brain than any pill. The danger is more to do with people building devices at home and using them in attempt to hack the brain.


I’d like to make a comment, this is my first time coming to this site, I suffer from chronic pain, buy my mother experiences far worse. But with that out of the way, I’m a electronics engineer, and know quite a bit about TDCS, it’s no way near electroshock therapy, the power level is nearly a thousand times LESS than what is used for ECT. The patient is awake and comfortable, and sitting at most you feel a slight tingling or pins and needles sensation at it’s worst, the devices usually run off a single 9 volt battery. People even build the devices for themselves. So everyone screaming they’re trying to lobotomize people, use the internet and actually look up what TDCS really is. There’s also hundreds of videos on youtube about TDCS if you rather watch and listen than read.


This is referred to as “non-invasive”. I think electric shock treatment, whatever it may be called nowadays, is definitely invasive. Also, does not sound like anything I would recommend.


I would rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.


Just buy an old Defibrillator wuth a good battery. Set it on LOW and hit CHARGE. When it beeps it is ready. Take one paddle and hold it on the right temple and the other paddle and place it on the left temple. Now press the DISCHARGE button. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh……….. I feel better …..

I’ve seen such devices advertised. How are they different (or are they!?) from electroshock therapy of 100 or so years ago?


Good site to compare differences in various brain stimulation methods
I’m also inclined to think manipulation of people’s brains is both archaic and relatively suspect, considering there is so much that even the scientific community doesn’t understand about the chemistry and processes of our brains (maybe since we use so little percentage of it as a species, perhaps as evidenced by the incecessent harm we do to each other). But the people who believe in this science make compelling cases. Am I going to run out and get my brain zapped? Well, before I had some moderate success with my current antidepressant, ECT was a treatment that I definitely considered, full well knowing the side effects. But people that far into their own soul sucking life threatening depression tend to not make the best decisions. I believe it’s brain chemistry based. There’s science confirming this, but they’re not quite sure as to the “why” of it all.
I happen to know the same warped thought process applies to people in pain, people suffering from extreme anxiety, and under other forms emotional & physical duress. You get the idea. And the families, they only want it to end, out of either impatience, or because they want their loved ones suffering to come to an end both might be will to sign onto damn near any treatment that sounds science based. So there’s that.
Bottom line, I instinctively think that stuff is super scary. Yikes

Kathleen E Hirte

I am greatful for all the sarastic, mocking commenters here.
Thank you!
You really Get that this ambiguos, inconclusive, apparently known to be destructive, electro- shocking “the” brain might just be the most thinly-veiled attempt to get lab rats.
How demeaning.
With the most limited, poorest research, at a life and death time for so many in IMMEDIATE need of help.
With the gaul to dare to infer there is any valid use for such risky unproven junk.
Why share these pseudo scientists and dump this on pain immediate need ..NOW?
And.. many ARE in a State of Emergency?
Disgustingly poorly timed..and so sickeningly inappropriate
Pain patients are (legally?) being dumped off like trash?
In my great nation, The USA..
No one cares, no, we are ONLY 25 million. Are we disposable?
Why share all the innuendoes with people in isolated hell-lives, now being attacked by the they are addicts..?? Why ?
With zero research done with actual pain, medical records, and ZERO abuse on record..lumped in with street addicts who often ARE criminals..WHY?
Even opiods are not a cure. They offer a bit of help. So take that away? With no other options??
~Based on ZERO REASON,
Pull those who sufer the worst..take their meds away.., no weaning, no apology, offering NOTHING proven, or known to man, options?
Turn your back?
Do these freakish dictators, who are now attacking pain patients miserable lives, or minimally existing lives.. not know how many ways pain can result and not be managed ?
Obviously not.
How can the big, life- altering heartless mopes make sloppy research public..and sit back, and pretend there is ANYTHING in this world that can cure
Shame on all who dare to ruin people’s minimal comfort and go home each day with a clear conscience. Feeling fine.
All involved are each a miserably poor excuse for human beings.
Shame on all involved on hurting people whocant defend themselves.
The worst sort of bullies-
Are hiding in high places.


Doug, your comment made me giggle. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think that we’re all so damn depressed at this point it’s sort of pathetic that a remark like yours on a ridiculous premise like this could actually make someone’s day.


Welcome back to the early to mid 20th century where electro shock therapy was common practice. What’s next, hiding people with chronic pain either in the basements or in the attic because the family doesn’t want people to know that they have a person suffering from chronic pain in their home?

Mary Carrazza

Insane. This procedure has been used on patients in psychiatric facilities world wide. Yes it made them placid for a few days after procedure – and eventually suicidal. There are not many around today to talk about this practice.
It’s insane to think that “man” can change the brain by frying it with electricity and know how a person will behave afterwards. Madness.

Tim Mason

They used to “cure” depression via a lobotomy which could be preformed in a dental chair using an ice pick and small mallet. Just place the ice pick into one nostril, a small tap if the hammer, wiggle it around just a smidge and you are cured of your depression.


Pain management and “science” seen to be reverting to the middle ages and we who suffer every minute of every day and will do anything in the hopes of getting relief are the guinea pigs! While some things don’t require cutting a person open they are not noninvasive.


Why not just get a labotamy.