An experimental brain implant that automatically detects and relieves pain has the potential to be tailored for human use, according to researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Animals have also been tested showing technological advances, such as pigs showing neural activity or monkeys playing Pong. The computerized device is the first of its kind to focus on both acute and chronic pain. It may also be effective in treating anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and other brain disorders.
“Our findings show that this implant offers an effective strategy for pain therapy, even in cases where symptoms are traditionally difficult to pinpoint or manage,” said senior author Jing Wang, MD, an Associate Professor of Anesthesiology at NYU Langone Health.
The technology, known as a closed-loop brain-machine interface, detects brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that is essential for pain processing. A computer linked to this extraordinary device identifies pain signals in real-time, triggering a therapeutic stimulation of another brain region, the prefrontal cortex, to ease pain sensations.
Jin Wang and his colleagues installed the tiny electrodes in the brains of dozens of rats and then exposed them to carefully measured amounts of pain. The animals were closely monitored to see how quickly they moved away from a source of acute pain.
The study findings, published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, showed that rats withdrew their paws 40 percent more slowly from the pain source when the device was turned on. In addition, animals in acute or chronic pain spent about two-thirds more time in a chamber where the device was turned on than in another chamber where it was not.
Researchers say that the implant precisely identified pain up to 80 percent of the time, eliminating the risks of overuse, tolerance, and addiction.
“Our findings show that this implant offers an effective strategy for pain therapy, even in cases where symptoms are traditionally difficult to pinpoint or manage,” notes Wang.
Brain implants – also known as deep brain stimulators, are currently used to prevent seizures and tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
“Our results demonstrate that this device may help researchers better understand how pain works in the brain,” says Zhang. “Moreover, it may allow us to find non-drug therapies for other neuropsychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.