A Sydney-based research organisation named Neura is behind a trial aiming to test whether brain training is an effective treatment for back pain.

Aptly named, RESOLVE, this medical trial is testing whether applying electricity to the brain will do more to reduce chronic pain than working only with the musculoskeletal system. Researchers hold high hopes that pain reduction results will be better and longer lasting results than current treatments for back pain. 

If the trial is a success, it promises to increase quality of life for millions of back-pain sufferers in Australia and across the world.

Dr James MacAuley is running the trial, “We’ve developed a whole treatment program around training your brain to normalise the touch coming from your back.” With the preliminary results coming in he only has positive news to report, “We were hoping to help people but we weren’t prepared for how well these treatments are helping.”

The RESOLVE trial is running in Sydney with around 275 participants who have all experienced high levels of pain for a minimum of three months. They are split into two groups, the first will undergo the radical, new brain treatment. The second will undergo tried and true methods of alleviating back pain, for example, exercises that restore functional movement. At the end of the trial it the researchers can compare which group are feeling less pain, and have mobility returned to them.

On a weekly basis for up to 12 weeks participants in the first group in the trial will spend an hour receiving electrical pulses straight to the brain. The process is called “transcranial direct current stimulation”, and it targets a very specific area: the motor and prefrontal cortices. This area of the brain is responsible for emotion (and many other things). The trial is drawing on recent advances in medical knowledge about pain processing and the true nature of the brain.

Until quite recently, we thought that the brain was more or less a stable organ throughout adulthood, but it turns out the brain is plastic. That means it has the ability to adapt to physical changes and re-circuit itself. So, when the prefrontal cortices receive specific stimulation it is hoped that the area of the brain can shrink and with it the pain processing can be returned to normal levels. The changes happening in the brain throughout the trial can be monitored with regular, painless MRI scans.

To supplement the new therapy, the people receiving the cranial electrical stimulation will receive additional therapeutic treatment applied directly to their backs, to the areas of most pain. It includes low-intensity laser therapy and pulsed electromagnetic energy.

While we are excited about the preliminary reports on the RESOLVE trial, we are looking forward to reading the analysis at the end to see if this new treatment method really is better than the traditional approach to healing back pain, or, if a combination of electrical stimulation, physiotherapy and medication will do more to help patients to live free of pain.