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Advanced Materials in Medicine

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The Manchester smart neuro-therapies platform

Challenge we’re trying to solve

Chronic musculoskeletal pain is pain lasting for more than 3 months and includes arthritis, low back pain, and fibromyalgia, and affects more than one-third of the UK (and global) population. Chronic pain is inadequately managed by medications (reported by 40% patients) in spite of £12 billion per year being spent on treatments in the UK, exceeding the costs of heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Current treatments for chronic pain are largely based on pharmacological interventions, which are costly with undesirable side-effects and limited effectiveness. Safe and effective non-medication approaches such as education, exercise and psychological interventions can alleviate pain but have variable uptake and compliance and do not directly modulate pain neural pathways.

Chronic musculoskeletal pain is a global health crisis and needs effective, safe and inexpensive treatments available to as many individuals as possible.

This has led us to develop non-invasive methods to directly increase the brain’s resilience to pain such as “alpha entrainment”. This is based upon stimulating the brain using targeted lights and sound, and recording the brain’s responses to these in order to optimize the stimulation. The approach is non-pharmacological and non-invasive, and designed to integrate with the user’s smartphone.

How we approached it

Our solution is the  Manchester Smart Neuro-therapies Platform which: records the user’s “brainwaves”, known as EEG, to a smartphone; presents visual stimulation in the alpha 8–12 Hz range via a smartphone to reduce pain perception; and can use the EEG data to determine individualised presentation at the user’s individual alpha frequency.

The approach combines real-time second-by-second stimulation adjustments, with personalized manufacturing of the data collection electrodes, with a long-term assessment of the patient’s pain state, determined from pain diaries and questionnaires all integrated into a single smartphone-based platform.

Who was involved

Researchers involved spanned both the Faculty of Science and Engineering and the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health. The project was led by Dr Alex Casson (FSE), with co-Investigators Prof Anthony Jones (FBMH), Dr Nelson Trujillo-Barreto (FBMH) and Dr Jason  Taylor (FBMH).

Outcome

We have prototype versions of all of the different parts of the system and have carried out a number of in-the-lab experiments with both volunteers and people with chronic pain to understand the potential efficacy and mechanisms of action. While our work is at an early stage with small numbers of participants, we found 15% reduction pain ratings in >50% of patients from a single 4-minute usage. We are currently investigating the potential pain reductions from repeated uses, and setting up an at-home investigation using all-portable technology.

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