Not all patients with chronic migraines are aided with over the counter or prescription medication. For some, another option may be mild non-invasive brain stimulation.
A small trial found that repeated sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can reduce the duration of migraine attacks and decrease pain intensity.
Marom Bikson, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the City College of New York's Grove School of Engineering, said the technology and procedure were developed to get currents deep in the brain.
This taps into what researchers call a pain network, a collection of interconnected brain regions involved in the perception and regulation of pain.
Targeting this region appeared to reverse ingrained changes in the brain caused by chronic migraine, such as greater sensitivity to headache triggers.
During the study, 13 patients diagnosed with chronic migraines between the ages of 18 and 60 were randomly assigned to receive 10 sessions of active or sham tDCS over a four week period. Each session, which entailed applying mild electrical currents to the brain from electrodes attached to the scalp, lasted for 20 minutes.
After completion of the treatment participants were interviewed by investigators and they filled out questionnaires to determine whether their symptoms had improved. Patients were followed for four months.
Investigators found that the sessions reduced the length of migraines and decreased the pain an average of 37 percent. The improvements accumulated over the treatment period and lasted months after the treatment was completed.
They also found that 75 percent of patients in the active group had experienced moderate improvement with partial remission of symptoms, while 80 percent of the group that did not receive active treatment had only slight improvement.
Computational models also showed that tDCS delivered therapeutic current along the pain network through both upper and deep brain structures.
It is expected that an at-home version of the tDCS device is still years away. Bikson envisions future units that are as small as iPods and could operate on a 9-volt battery. The small devices could be stored in purses or desk drawers, or used even as patients are walking around.
"There's something about migraine pain that's particularly distressing," said Bikson. "If it's possible to help some people get just 30 percent better, that's a very meaningful improvement in quality of life."
Larger clinical trials are still needed to confirm the finding. The study was recently published in journal Headache.