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Researchers train subjects' brains to experience less pain

Could listening to a piece of audio on your headphones, or popping on a head-up display, make you more tolerant of pain? Research coming out of the U.K.’s University of Manchester certainly suggests so.

Researchers from the Human Pain Research Group (yes, this is a thing that exists outside of an Eli Roth movie) were interested in inducing alpha waves in the human brain to counter distress. One of the five different types of frequencies in the brain — others include delta waves, theta waves, beta waves, and gamma waves — alpha waves have been shown to be linked to calm and reduced anxiety.

“The project started with my colleague, Dr. Chris Brown, who does a lot of work with meditation,” researcher Katharina Ecsy told Digital Trends. “Using brain imaging, he found that people who meditate experience less pain, and that this was linked with alpha power. We wanted to find a way to make these brain changes available to everyday people who don’t meditate, as more of a quick-fix solution.”

In recent years, meditation has increasingly been used in medicine, as a recommended habit for people suffering from chronic pain conditions. However, since learning to properly meditate can take years, Manchester’s new research could represent a valuable advance.

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For the study, participants were beamed with pulses of light or sound at a frequency between 8 and 12 Hz, which have been shown to generate alpha waves.

“The brain has the ability to adapt to any frequency in the 1-30 Hz range when it is stimulated,” Ecsy continued. “For example, that could be the ticking of a metronome or any other kind of steady rhythm that the brain can mimic. As a result, your brain cells start firing at that frequency and amplify it in the brain.”

After this, subjects were shot with a heat-generating laser on the back of their arms. Participants who had received alpha wave stimulation reported experiencing significantly less pain than those who had been exposed to a placebo non-alpha wave brain stimulation.

Of the subjects who had had the true alpha wave experience, those who were given the visual stimulus — involving flashes of light administered while wearing goggles — found it to be the most effective.

“In the future, we think it may be possible to let patients choose between visual and auditory stimuli,” Ecsy said. “In the case of the auditory example, this could be something that people suffering from chronic pain can listen to as they go to sleep, or even walk around listening to. In the case of the auditory stimulus, technologies like Google Glass are developing very quickly. That could be an exciting use-case.”