News, Technology

Instant Painkillers

Kenton Reynolds

Kenton Reynolds, Writer

A neural bridge has been engineered to instantly detect and suppress pain.

When we feel pain, it is detected in sensory neurons which then send an electrical impulse along relay neurons to the spinal cord. The impulse moves up the spinal cord to the hypothalamus in the brain which then sends it to the relevant parts of the brain. Two of which are the somatosensory cortex, which detects physical sensation, and the amygdala, which deals with pain as well as the suppression of it. The brain then sends a response to deal with the pain. Traditional painkillers, such as paracetamol, work by blocking the chemical messengers from telling the brain that there is pain. Thus, we never know that there was pain and cannot feel it.

The New York University School of Medicine has built a brain implant that connects the somatosensory cortex to the amygdala. This means that when pain is detected, the amygdala instantly is able to suppress it. The device has two parts: a spy and a sleeper.

The “spy” listens to electrical chatter in a brain region that is responsible for processing pain and decodes it in real time. If a pain signal is found, information about the pain is sent to the sleeper. The sleeper, which is implanted in the front of the brain, causes a light beam to stimulate the region. Stimulation results in the activation of neurons that override pain signals.

The device has been tested primarily on short, sharp pains such as the one you feel from a pin prick. The testing, which was done on rats, showed the pain signals were prevented 80% of the time with just a few seconds of delay. The animals would step away from the stimulator that delivered the pain 40% slower than before, which would suggest that the pain had been relieved. Next there was testing on more steady, chronic pain similar to arthritis. These tests also suggested that the system is successful.

This is a massive development in pain prevention. There is a long way to go from rats to humans, not just because of ethical problems but also the drastically different brain structure and complexity. Though this may not be a viable solution for all who deal with pain as everyone encounters some level of pain, the impressive results that this has shown with chronic pain could mean it is a good solution for those who have to deal with a permanent or recurring illness. It could prevent people being on medication permanently to prevent pain as well as reducing the use of strong painkillers which often have long term effects. The development of this research is incredibly exciting and could prove very important for many who deal with pain on a daily basis.

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