The Manchester Smart Neuro-therapies Platform
What is it ?
This technology is currently being developed to allow patients, in the comfort of their own homes, to record their pain symptoms and to access two different types of non-drug therapy for their chronic pain.
Why do we need it ?
Approximately one-third of the population suffer from chronic pain. Annual healthcare and employment costs exceed those associated with heart disease, cancer and diabetes making it an urgent health need. A recent European survey revealed 40% of chronic pain patients felt that their treatment was inadequate and with a substantial preference for non-drug therapies. Long term benefit without significant harm has only been demonstrated for cognitive (talking) therapies and exercise. Unfortunately, access to cognitive therapy and exercise is often limited by cost, mobility and acceptability issues.
What led to the the Manchester Smart Neuro-therapies platform ?
We found that there are particular kinds of brain waves called alpha waves (10 Hz frequency) that are associated with the experience of placebo-mediated pain relief. We know that these kind of brain waves can be used by one bit of the brain to control another bit of the brain. One of our PhD students, Kathy Ecsy, then did a series of experiments showing that if we increase the amount of alpha waves in the brain by flashing a light or with sounds at alpha frequency pain is experienced less intensely. We initially showed this in normal volunteers and more recently have shown similar things happening in the brains of patients with chronic pain. We are at a very early stage of testing this equipment out so we need help to complete further experiments to take these studies towards clinical trials.
How might this innovation help ?
The Manchester Smart Neuro-therapies platform is designed to allow patients to record their pain symptoms and the brain waves associated with those symptoms in the privacy of their own home. The symptoms are recorded on a simple App on a mobile phone. The brain waves are recorded using a smart cap that allows us to record brain waves coming from the surface of the brain by simply and carefully placing the smart cap on the head. The smart cap will be individually tailored for individuals head size, shape and hair style so that small silver coated electrodes can sit on the scalp comfortably and record the brain activity going on just underneath the scalp. Patients will be able to decide when they want to record their brain responses and when to use an app on their mobile phone to see a representation of their brain activity on the mobile phone without any use of wires.
There are two types of treatment that will be available which are geared to enhancing the brain’s own natural power to deal with pain: The first is for more immediate pain relief, so might be useful for an intrusive pain that is stopping patients getting to sleep, that we call alpha entrainment. This involves wearing goggles with flashing lights that create a rhythmic stimulation in the alpha range (approximately 10 cycles per second) or wearing earplugs that create a similar effect with sound. These are usually used for brief periods of time but can be used repeatedly.
The second type of treatment is more geared to increasing the brains resilience to pain in the longer term. We use a technique called neurofeedback where the patient puts on their own personalised EEG (electro-encephalography) cap to record their own brain waves coming from the surface of the brain. This transmits the information about the brain waves wirelessly to their mobile phone on which is installed our smart neuro-therapies app. The amount of alpha the patient is expressing in the brain is displayed on the mobile screen or flat screen and the patient is encouraged to find ways of increasing the amount of alpha in the brain. This is done over repeated sessions over an eight-week training period. This process can be repeated as necessary but it is hoped that this kind of training will allow patients to learn how to do this in the longer term in their daily life without the need of using the smart neuro-therapies platform. The important thing is patients can make these decisions about treatment in the comfort of their own home with a minimum of technical assistance.
Early studies of alpha entrainment showing similar entrainment to what we saw with our normal volunteers studies but we now need to perform more extensive studies on both alpha-entrainment and neurofeedback and we need your help:
If you want to take part in the neurofeedback trial, email James Henshaw or Tim Rainey on 0161 206 0205
Participants who take part will be compensated for their time.
For BBC News coverage:
For more detailed reading:
- Alpha-range visual & auditory stimulation reduces the perception of pain
- Cortical nociceptive processes are reduced by visual alpha-band entrainment in the human brain
- Predictive mechanisms linking brain opioids to chronic pain vulnerability and resilience
For more detailed listening: