The 'mindreading cap' that could help ease chronic pain
Learning how to control our brain activity could be key to controlling pain and better managing chronic symptoms
A headset that harnesses the power of thought could be used to treat chronic pain.
In a small trial, patients experienced significant reductions in pain after wearing the device, which 'reads' their brainwaves and then trains their brain to better manage symptoms.
After using the headset for eight weeks, sleep, mood and quality of life all improved, and anxiety and depression were eased.
Chronic pain - defined as pain that persists for more than three months despite treatment - that is moderately to severely disabling affects eight million adults in the UK.
Common causes include arthritis, back problems and migraine.
Treatment options range from physiotherapy to painkillers, but they do not work for all, and the drugs can have side-effects and carry the risk of addiction.
The headset uses electro-encephalogram (EEG) technology, in which electrodes are attached to the scalp that pick up electrical activity in the brain.
EEG machines are widely used to diagnose conditions such as epilepsy. They can also be adapted for neurofeedback therapy, whereby the electrical data is transmitted to an app that the patient can access, to help them learn to control their brain activity and improve their symptoms.
EEG-neurofeedback is not widely available on the NHS, partly because it's expensive and involves visiting a hospital several times a week for several weeks.
But the new headset, called Axon, allows patients to try it at home.
"EEG-neurofeedback aims to change the way the brain interprets pain signals," explains Nick Birch, a spinal surgeon at the East Midlands Spine clinic in Daventry, Northamptonshire, who led the trial, which was funded by the manufacturer Exsurgo.
"We feel pain when specialised receptors in the skin, joints and organs send messages through nerves to the brain, which interprets them as pain."
In chronic pain caused by a condition such as arthritis, "the brain is constantly receiving such signals - EEG-neurofeedback aims to train it to interpret these signals differently", he says.
"If a person can suppress the 'pain brain waves' and enhance the 'non-pain brainwaves' through neurofeedback training, they can improve their pain."
The headset contains eight electrodes positioned around the scalp that pick up electrical activity associated with pain. This data is transmitted to an app on the patient's phone, where it feeds into a range of games. Examples include an activity in which the patient aims to make a lotus flower grow, and one in which they make a balloon float.
Patients use their brainwaves to play and, through a process of trial and error, they learn which patterns of thought are associated with success in the games.
Crucially, the same brain activity associated with easing pain also leads to the flower growing and the balloon floating. Over time, the patient learns how to control this brain activity, so that it perceives pain less. In other words, it no longer interprets the pain signals as being painful.
In a trial, 16 people with chronic pain were given the headsets to use at home for eight weeks. All participants reported that their pain improved, with half achieving a 'clinically significant' reduction, defined as at least 30 per cent.
Sleep, mood, quality of life, and levels of anxiety and depression improved in around 90 per cent of participants, and many still felt the benefits three months later.
Side-effects were limited to headaches at the start, thought to be caused by the headset feeling tight initially.
The hope is that the cap will be available early next year. A larger trial, involving more than 100 people with chronic pain, is due to start soon in New Zealand.
A portable EEG-neurofeedback device is an "exciting development", says Dr Nick Silver, a consultant neurologist at The Walton Centre in Liverpool.
"While the evidence is at an early stage, it's encouraging that early data shows treatment may also benefit other functions such as sleep and mood.
"It is exciting to think we are entering an era where we may be able to rely on safe, non-invasive brain treatments as opposed to drugs, particularly where painkilling medications may cause problems, including the possible worsening of pain long-term."
© Daily Mail