But a new study says that a certain type of electrical brain stimulation shows promise for both preventing them and for reducing the amount of pain the migraine sufferer experiences. Even more, it is portable and could someday be manufactured into a device as small as an iPod.
The technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), applies a mild electrical current to the brain from electrodes attached to the scalp.
Developed by a team of researchers led by Dr. Marom Bikson at the City College of New York, the technology targets several brain regions that perceive and regulate pain.
The scientists, who also include Dr. Alexandre DaSilva at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and Dr. Felipe Fregni at Harvard Medical School, found that the technology shortened the length of migraine attacks and lessened the intensity of pain by about 37% over a control group who received a sham treatment. It even seemed to reverse some ingrained changes in the brains of chronic migraine sufferers, such as greater sensitivity to headache triggers.
The researchers also found that the improvements continued over four weeks of treatment and then persisted for four months afterward. Professor Bikson suggested that someday, patients could use such electrical stimulation daily to prevent attacks, or periodically, like a booster.
Their experiments, the results of which were published in the journal Headache, are still preliminary, as the study had only 13 patients.
Potential migraine treatment
Currently, chronic migraine sufferers can get migraine relief from existing brain stimulation techniques, but many of them have drawbacks: They can be too unwieldy and heavy to carry around, making them nearly useless for chronic sufferers who can have 15 or more migraines a month. Others cause negative side effects such as seizures, others don't reach far enough into the brain and still others actually require surgery to implant the electrodes.
The tDCS technology, however, is portable, says Dr. Bikson, who projects that a commercial product could be iPod-sized. "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."
However, clinical studies using larger populations are necessary before such a device comes to market.
"There's something about migraine pain that's particularly distressing," noted Professor Bikson. "If it's possible to help some people get just 30 percent better, that's a very meaningful improvement in quality of life."
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