UVA Health to study the effects of deep brain stimulation on chronic pain

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University of Virginia Health System researchers recently received $5 million to investigate a new way to treat chronic pain that does not respond to medication.

The researchers will receive the funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to finance a clinical trial to develop deep brain stimulation (DBS) for severe pain conditions.

Leading the study are investigators from UVA Health including Jeff Elias, MD, Chang-Chia Liu, PhD, Mark Quigg, MD, and Patrick Finan, PhD.

Their approach aims to modulate pain signals from deep inside the brain. The group is following up on earlier evidence that the insula part of the brain plays an important role in the perception of pain. Based on that evidence, the team will optimize an established “neuromodulation” technique called deep brain stimulation for use in the insula, in the hopes it will provide much-needed pain relief. If successful, the approach could shed light on the fundamental nature of pain itself, the researchers say.

“For the first time, we will be able to monitor the brain’s signals and distinguish how they look when the patient is having pain versus when they are not in pain,” said Elias in a statement. “Understanding the fundamental changes that occur to our brains when we develop a pain condition is critical if we are going to design ways to manipulate and alter these pain signals.”

To test this deep brain stimulation approach, UVA will launch a clinical trial in 12 patient volunteers with treatment-resistant neuropathic pain. The UVA experts will map the volunteers’ brains and stimulate sections of the insula, to see if the stimulation provides pain relief. Participants who benefit will then move into a randomized, double-blinded trial. This trial will implant electrodes along the insula to see if DBS can provide ongoing relief. 

The researchers also will study the volunteers’ brain activity in hopes of identifying biological indicators of pain. Such biomarkers would let doctors better assess and treat pain in patients and could be used to develop a new DBS system specifically for pain management.

The researchers plan to begin enrolling patients in the clinical trial this summer.