Brain stimulation in the
treatment of pain
Helena Knotkova, Ricardo A Cruciani and Joav Merrick
Disability studies book series
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Professor Russell K Portenoy, MD
Brain stimulation in the treatment of chronic pain
Ricardo A Cruciani, Helena Knotkova and Joav Merrick
SECTION ONE: RATIONALE FOR BRAIN STIMULATION IN PAIN
Introduction to electrotherapy technology
Marom Bikson, Abhishek Datta, Maged Elwassif, Varun Bansal and Angel V
Brain changes related to chronic pain
Brain stimulation for the treatment of pain
Soroush Zaghi, Nikolas Heine and Felipe Fregni
SECTION TWO: INVASIVE STIMULATION
Deep brain stimulation for chronic pain
Morten L Kringelbach, Alexander L Green, Erlick AC Pereira, Sarah LF Owen
and Tipu Z Aziz
Invasive treatment of chronic neuropathic pain syndromes: Epidural
stimulation of the motor cortex
Dirk Rasche and Volker M Tronnier
Brain stimulation in the management of postoperative pain
Jeffrey J Borckardt, Scott Reeves and Mark S George
Electrical stimulation of primary motor cortex for intractable neuropathic
SECTION THREE: NON-INVASIVE APPROACH
Principles and mechanisms of transcranial magnetic stimulation
Monica A Perez and Leonardo G Cohen
Principle and mechanisms of transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)
Andrea Antal, Walter Paulus and Michael A Nitsche
Non-invasive brain stimulation therapy for the management of complex
regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
Helena Knotkova, Santiago Esteban, Una Sibirceva, Debarsi Das and Ricardo A
Non-invasive brain stimulation approaches to fibromyalgia pain
Baron Short, Jeffrey J Borckardt, Mark George, Will Beam and Scott T Reeves
Safety of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in protocols
involving human subjects
Arun Sundaram, Veronika Stock, Ricardo A Cruciani and Helena Knotkova
SECTION FOUR: ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
About the editors
About the Institute for Non-invasive Brain Stimulation of New York
About the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
About the disability studies book series
SECTION FIVE: INDEX
For both the scientific and the clinical communities, the excitement generated by
translational research is proportionate to the complexity and generalizability of the
science and the potential clinical payoff down the road. From this perspective, the
work now being done to translate techniques of brain stimulation to the realm of
pain management is exciting indeed.
The overarching scientific rationale of neurostimulatory therapies for pain—
that CNS structures undergo neuroplastic changes in response to a variety of
stimuli, that these changes can sustain disease states such as pain, and that
stimulation of the nervous system using varied sources of energy has the potential
to reset or remodel brain activity in a way that serves health—has been recognized
for many decades. Although relatively little is known about the physiology and
chemistry underlying the neuroplasticity involved in acute and chronic pain
pathophysiology, or its reversal through treatment, the reality of these processes is
now widely accepted. Functional neuroimaging, quantitative sensory testing,
neurocognitive testing and other measures substantiate the remarkable shifts in
neuronal activation that may occur and correlate with clinical phenomenology,
including pain perception and analgesia. The science is inchoate, but the relevance
to human experience and the accessibility to therapeutic intervention is
recognized, and is the driver for translational research of enormous promise.
Clinical applications of stimulation have been explored at every level of the
neuraxis, from the cutaneous afferents to peripheral nerve, and from spinal cord to
brain. Deep brain stimulation and cortical stimulation have been commercialized
and are used ‘off-label’ by a small number of pain specialists who have familarity
with the approaches and access to the expertise to undertake them. In an analysis
of risk and benefit, they typically are viewed as among the “last resort” measures
for chronic pain, a perspective justified by the limited data (and no evidence of
comparative effectiveness) and the risk inherent in neurosurgery.
The advent of transcranial stimulation techniques shifts the risk-to-benefit
analysis and potentially opens the door to widely expanded trials of central
neurostimulation therapies for pain. The research now ongoing can accelerate if
the delivery approach to stimulation is non-invasive. Future studies can target
localization parameters for stimulation, timing strategies, pharmacologic
augmentative effects, clinical predictors of efficacy and a range of other
questions. If transcranial approaches prove to be safe and effective, they could
change the current view of best practice in pain management and assume a
significant role in the clinic. With thoughtful, targeted translational research, this
potential can be assessed relatively soon.
This volume provides the background on brain stimulation for pain and an
unique update on the status of transcranial stimulation. The Editors deserve great
praise for bringing together an international group of basic and clinical scientists,
each of whom is a leader in advancing the development of this work. The volume
may be a milestone on a path that eventuates in broad uptake of new therapies in
the clinic. It certainly supports an expanded research agenda for brain stimulation,
and particularly transcranial stimulation in pain management.
Russell K Portenoy, MD
Chairman and Gerald J and Dorothy R Friedman Chair in Pain Medicine and
Professor of Neurology and Anesthesiology
Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care
Beth Israel Medical Center
First Avenue at 16th Street
New York, NY 10003
Telephone: 212 844-1505
Fax: 212 844-1503
Ricardo A Cruciani, MD, PhD*1,2,3, Helena Knotkova,
PhD1,2 and Joav Merrick, MD, MMedSci, DMSc4,5
1Institute for Non-invasive Brain Stimulation of New York, Research
Division, Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care, New York
2Department of Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New
York 3Department of Anesthesiology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine,
Bronx, New York, United States of America
4National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Office of the
Medical Director, Division for Mental Retardation,
Ministry of Social Affairs, Jerusalem, Israel
5Kentucky Children’s Hospital, University of Kentucky,
Lexington, United States
Recent surveys suggested that chronic pain affected as many as 3% of the
worldwide population and there is an evidence that chronic pain patients are twice
as likely to commit suicide as compared with the healthy population. It should
also be remembered that the lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts in the chronic
pain population is about 10%. Although various innovative pharmacological
preparations and formulas have been implemented into clinical practice in recent
years, chronic pain in many patients have not been successfully maintained at an
acceptable level, thus not allowing the patients to resume their life-activities.
* Correspondence: Ricardo A. Cruciani, MD, PhD, Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care,
1st Ave at 17th Str., Baird Hall, 12th fl, New York, NY, 10003, United States. E-mail:
Ricardo A Cruciani, Helena Knotkova and Joav Merrick
Despite remarkable advances in pain management, chronic pain remains under-
treated, depicting the need for new therapeutic approaches in chronic pain.
In the past years, neuroimaging techniques provided a better insight into
mechanisms involved in the development and maintenance of chronic pain.
Chronic pain does not develop as a simple direct result of activity in nociceptive
fibers following a traumatic event, but rather represents a consequence of dynamic
plastic changes in sensory, affective and cognitive systems and related neuronal
networks. The functional neural changes associated with pain include both
adaptive compensatory changes, as well as maladaptive changes that may
contribute to dysfunction of involved anatomical and physiological systems. In
accordance, research findings indicated that patients with some chronic pain
syndromes developed functional reorganization of certain brain structures (for
example in somatosensory- or motor cortices). Since research studies have shown
that reversal of pathological cortical changes in chronic-pain patients is
accompaigned by pain relief, a modulation of brain excitability seems to be a
promising approach to address pain related to central hyperexcitability. Brain
stimulation techniques aim to selectively enhance adaptive patterns of neural
activity, suppress the maladaptive ones, and restore the balance in disturbed
In the past decades, numerous experimental studies in animals demonstrated
strong inhibitory effects that electrical stimulation of nervous system can exert on
nociceptive transmission. The encouraging findings from animal studies
facilitated interest in the use of neurostimulation to induce pain relief in humans.
The neurostimulation has mostly targeted the sensory pathways mediating
transmission of non-noxious information (large afferent peripheral fibers, spinal
dorsal columns or thalamic sensory nuclei), and to a lesser degree brainstem
structures exerting anti-nociceptive influences (e.g. the peri-aqueductal or peri-
ventricular grey matter). In the 1950s, stimulation of sub-cortical motor fibers was
shown to inhibit afferent transmission in the dorsal horns, later followed by
findings on analgesic effect of motor stimulation. However, the use of motor
cortex stimulation for pain control was not reported until the 1990s. Since then,
MCS (motor cortex stimulation) has been used in selected chronic-pain
populations to manage pain refractory to conventional pharmacological
In the past two decades, non-invasive alternatives to MCS, transcranial
magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)
have been developed. Both TMS and tDCS have been studied in healthy
volunteers, patients with various disorders, as well as in a variety of pain
syndromes. Up to date, multiple reports on TMS have shown that repetitive TMS
at higher operating frequencies can efficiently alleviate pain, indicating clinical
potential of this technique. Recently, both research and technical innovative
initiatives have addressed the predominant obstacles (high initial, operating and
maintenance costs, and advanced level of skills required to operate the unit) that
prevented TMS from broader implementation into routine pain management, and
there is a hope that in coming years, TMS will be utilized in pain practice to its
In comparison with TMS, tDCS has been developed more recently, and thus
less evidence from controlled studies is available on analgesic efficacy of tDCS.
However, the exiting research findings together with empirical observations
suggest a great potential of tDCS to serve as a therapeutic tool in management of
chronic neuropathic pain.
In conclusion, the findings collected in the past decade open exciting
perspectives for clinical application of brain stimulation techniques in pain
management, at least for selected populations of patients sufering chronic pain
resistant to conventional therapy. Beyond this therapeutic purpose, both invasive
and non-invasive brain-stimulation approaches can help to further explore
relationship between cortical plasticity and pain.
Marom Bikson*, PhD, Abhishek Datta, MS,
Maged Elwassif, MS, Varun Bansal and
Angel V Peterchev, PhD
Department of Biomedical Engineering, City College of New York of CUNY,
New York and Division of Brain Stimulation and Therapeutic Modulation,
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York,
United States of America
Electrotherapy involves electric or magnetic stimulation of the human body
in a range of therapeutic applications including pain alleviation. A wide
spectrum of electrotherapy paradigms have been deployed in pain treatment,
illustrating the inherent flexibility of this technology, but also the
fundamental challenge of determining an optimal strategy. The effective and
safe application of electrotherapy requires an understanding of the basic
components of electrotherapy technology, as well as how to control
electrotherapy dose. These topics are introduced in this review, along with
related comments on the general mechanisms of electrotherapy, as well as an
overview of various electrotherapy paradigms.
* Correspondence: Marom Bikson, PhD, Department of Biomedical Engineering, City College of
New York of CUNY, T-403B Steinman Hall, 160 Convent Avenue, New York, NY 10031
United States. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marom Bikson, Abhishek Datta, Maged Elwassif, et al.
Electrotherapy is the application of electricity to the human body for therapeutic
purposes, including the alleviation of acute or chronic pain states. Here we briefly
introduce the basic technology of electrotherapy, as it relates to practical decisions
made by clinicians in determining a therapeutic strategy. A basic understanding of
electrotherapy technology must inform effective and safe clinical treatment, and is
therefore important for all practitioners of electrotherapy.
ELECTROTHERAPY DEVICE COMPONENTS
It is convenient to understand electrotherapy devices, including implanted and
non-invasive (surface) devices, as made out of only two distinct functional
components with additional support accessories. The first functional component is
the stimulator device which generates the electrical signal. What electrical signal
is generated is selectable by the operator from a set provided by the manufacturer.
How this electrical signal changes over time is called the waveform of the
electrical signal and can be described by features such as pulse shape, width,
amplitude, polarity and frequency. The second functional component of
electrotherapy devices are the electrodes. An electrode is where the metal
conductor contacts the tissue or skin; for skin stimulation a sponge or gel may be
placed between the metal and skin. At the electrodes, the electrical signal
generated by the stimulator enters and then exits the body; for this reason there
must always be at least two electrodes. The user positions the electrodes near the
direct target of stimulation. For implanted devices, the stimulator device casing
can serve as one electrode.
Whereas for non-invasive devices the stimulation waveform is adjusted by
controls (e.g., knobs or keyboard) directly on the stimulator device, for implanted
stimulation systems a telemetry system is used to adjust the stimulation
waveform. Some devices use measurements from sensors, such as electrical
potential recordings, to change stimulation waveform in real time using automatic
Most electrical stimulator devices are either voltage-controlled or current-
controlled. In a voltage-controlled device, the user specifies peak device output in
units of volts, and the voltage output waveform of the device is regulated. For
current-controlled devices, the user specifies peak device output in units of
amperes, and the current output waveform of the device is regulated. However, all
Introduction to electrotherapy technology 15
stimulators output both a voltage and a current. For example, a current-controlled
device changes its output voltage to achieve a desired current level. Finally, it
should be noted that the voltage and current waveforms do not necessarily have
the same shape, due to capacitive behavior of tissues and the electrode-tissue
interface (1). Indeed, a concern with voltage controlled stimulation is that the
current reaching the brain will be distorted from the programmed waveform.
Though current controlled devices are thus generally preffered, technical or
logistical factors result in many voltage controlled devices still being employed.
For magnetic stimulation, the electrodes are replaced with coils that are
positioned on the body over the direct target. It appears that pulsed magnetic
fields are not therapeutic in themselves, but rather, the magnetic fields produce
tissue stimulation by inducing electrical currents in the body. Therefore, we
consider electrotherapy inclusive of pulsed magnetic therapy. Analogously to
electrical stimulation, in magnetic therapy, the electrical signal generated by the
stimulator determines the waveform of the electrical currents in the body.
However, unlike electrical stimulation, in magnetic stimulation there is no current
entering or exiting the body. Rather, the electric currents induced by the magnetic
field circulate within the body.
Additional hardware of electrotherapy devices can be considered accessories
which largely serve mechanical and safety purposes rather than directly determine
therapeutic efficacy. For example, for convenience the stimulator is often at some
distance from the electrodes or magnetic coil, therefore insulated wires connect
the stimulator to the electrodes/coil. The non-conducting mechanical support
around implanted electrodes is referred to as leads. Surface electrode accessories
may include some form of position support (adhesive, cap, or straps). For high
intensity TMS, accessories such as air compressors, and water or oil circulation
systems are sometimes used to cool the coil. Still additional accessories are used
to position electrodes during implantation or around the cranium, as well as
calibrate device output. Finally, all electrotherapy devices need a power source
such as a battery or a line-connected power supply.
ELECTROTHERAPY PARADIGM CLASSIFICATION
A number of electrotherapy devices and paradigms have been introduced over the
years and given names that are generally descriptive of the electrode or coil
positions and/or the stimulation waveforms. Some examples of electrotherapy
paradigms for cranial stimulation are illustrated in figure 1. For instance,
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) refers to electrical therapy
Marom Bikson, Abhishek Datta, Maged Elwassif, et al.
with superficial skin electrodes placed anywhere on the body including the
cranium, with stimulation waveform consisting of repeated pulses (2-4).
Electroacupuncture is similar to TENS, but uses needle electrodes that penetrate
the skin (5). If one or more electrodes, or the stimulating coil, is placed on the
head to target the brain, the stimulation paradigm is typically referred to as
“transcranial” or “cranial”, such as in Transcranial Electrical Stimulation (TES)
(6-8). Though TES can be applied with any waveform, “TES” has histrically
been used to specifiy high-intensity pulsed stimulation. Separate application of
TES include transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) which employs
superficial skin electrodes, with at least one placed on the cranium, and a
stimulation waveform that is direct current (DC) (9-11). The same electrode
configurations can be used with alternating currents—transcranial alternating
current stimulation (tACS) (12). Similarly, Cranial Electrical (or Electrotherapy)
Stimulation (CES) uses superficial cranial electrodes, but the stimulation signals
are square waves modulated at various frequencies (13). High-density Transcanial
Electrical Stimulation (HD-TES) incorporates arrays of surface cranial electrodes
to increase focality (14). High-density transcanial Direct Current Stimulation
(HD-tDCS) similarly employs arrays of cranial electrodes and uses DC current.
For more targeted and chronic stimulation, the electrodes can be implanted
intracranially. For example, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) employs electrodes
implanted proximal to deep brain structures, and stimulation with pulse trains
(15). A less invasive form of intracranial stimulation uses epidural or subdural
electrodes to stimulate a specific superficial cortical area such as motor cortex
(e.g., epidural cortical stimulation (ECS), motor cortex stimulation (MCS)) (16-
18). Implanted electrodes can also be used for chronic extracranial nerve
stimulation. For example, Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) and Spinal Cord
Stimulation (SCS) involve chronic stimulation with electrodes implanted around
the vagus nerve and the spinal cord, respectively (19-22).
Finally, electrical stimulation can also be induced by pulsed magnetic fields.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) encompasses treatments using a
magnetic stimulation coil placed over the head inducing brief electrical current
pulses in the brain (6,18). TMS has the advantage that it produces less scalp
discomfort than suprathreshold TES, and is therefore more tolerable in
unanesthetized subjects. Therapeutic TMS applications typically apply stimulation
with pulse trains (repetitive TMS (rTMS)). Low-frequency rTMS is administered
in continuous trains at 0.2-1 Hz, whereas high-frequency rTMS is administered as
intermittent pulse trains of 5-20 Hz (18). A number of novel TMS paradigms that
aim to increase the neuromodulatory effectiveness and selectivity of rTMS have
been introduced recently, including theta burst stimulation (TBS), repetitive
Introduction to electrotherapy technology 17
monophasic pulse stimulation, paired- and quadri-pulse stimulation, paired
associative stimulation, controllable pulse shape TMS (cTMS), and deep-brain
Figure 1. Illustration of some brain stimulation paradigms. Stimulation with surface
electrodes is called transcutaneous stimulation. When the electrodes are placed on the
scalp to target the brain, the paradigm is referred to as cranial or transcranial stimulation
(A). Magnetic stimulation employs coils of wire wound in specific patterns (e.g., “figure of
8”). When the coil is positioned on the head, the paradigm is called Transcranial Magnetic
Simulation (TMS) (B). Electrotherapies using implanted electrodes are generally classified
by the target anatomical structure near the electrodes such as Spinal Cord Stimulation,
Vagus Nerve Stimulation, or Deep Brain Stimulation (C)
The above examples indicate that the electrotherapy paradigm classification
usually involves a description of the electrodes/coil position and/or the
stimulation waveform generated. It should be emphasized that each of these
classifications typically covers a wide parameter set. For example, TENS
encompasses a range of stimulation amplitudes and frequencies (4,23). Moreover,
simply because two distinct electrotherapies fall under the same umbrella
classification does not mean that those therapies share a common mechanism of
action or therapeutic outcome. This point is particularly important from the
perspective of controlling and reproducing electrotherapy dose. For example, the
fact that two medical devices share the same label (e.g., TENS) does not mean
that they generate stimulation with identical parameters. Therefore, indicating
only the therapy classification (e.g., TENS) in a report does not provide enough
information for the therapy to be reproduced. Rather, it is necessary to fully
account for and report the electrode or coil type and positions, and the stimulator
waveform parameters (pulse shape, width, amplitude, polarity, frequency, train
duration, etc.). Typically, the stimulation paradigm can be fully described by
providing the manufacturer name and a unique model or part number (P/N) of the
Marom Bikson, Abhishek Datta, Maged Elwassif, et al.
stimulator device and the electrodes or coil, as well as the settings of the user-
selectable stimulation parameters used in the treatment.
In summary, from the perspective of therapeutic efficacy, what makes each
electrical therapy different is 1) the waveform generated by the stimulator, and 2)
the electrodes/coil type and location. Thus, when considering an appropriate
electrical therapy, the decisions that a clinician must make can be conceptually
reduced to selecting electrode/coil types and positions, and the stimulation
waveform characteristics (24). The former can be conceived of as spatial targeting
of the stimulation, whereas the latter amounts to controlling the temporal
dynamics of the stimulation.
RATIONAL ELECTROTHERAPY DESIGN
The combination of electrode/coil type and positions, and stimulator output
waveform determine electrotherapy dose. Clinicians must integrate both factors
together in determining an electrotherapy strategy, however, it is also useful to
conceptually consider each independently. As emphasized above, clinicians must
fully account for and report stimulation dose for therapies to be reproducible (24).
When stimulation is administered repeatedly, the dose may change between
sessions, for example, as the clinician optimizes stimulation parameters. Any
changes of the electrotherapy dose during the course of treatment should be
accounted for and reported as well.
The decision of where to place the electrodes or the coil is pivotal to
electrotherapy outcome. Neuronal tissue near the electrodes/coil will be
preferentially directly activated by stimulation. When considering the focality of
electrical stimulation, to a first approximation, one can picture current entering the
tissue at one electrode and travelling in a diffuse line toward the other electrode.
Thus, the further apart the electrodes are, the longer and more diffuse the tissue
region of current flow is. This is one reason why two closely implanted electrodes
may generate more focal stimulation, compared to two surface electrodes on
opposite sides of the head. For magnetic stimulation, the induced electrical
currents follow roughly the shape of the stimulation coil. For example, a circular
TMS coil will induce circular currents under the circumference of the coil. In this
manner, one can grossly estimate where in the brain or peripheral nerves the
current will flow, based on electrode/coil type and position.
There has been a continued effort to make the spatial targeting and dosing of
stimulation paradigms more precise. For example, DBS electrodes are implanted
using stereotactic guidance systems (25) and TMS applications are increasingly
Introduction to electrotherapy technology 19
adopting stereotactic coil positioning based on individual MRI and fMRI scans
(26). Further, recent technical innovations in stimulation hardware are aiming to
improve spatial targeting as well. For example the use of “ring” electrode
configurations in High-Density Transcranial Electrical Stimulation is intended to
enhance the focality of non-invasive cortical stimulation (27). Finally, setting of
stimulation intensity relative to the subject’s response threshold is frequently used
to individualize the treatment dose, exemplified by the rTMS dose adjustment
relative to the motor evoked potential (MEP) threshold (28).
The region of the brain or the peripheral nervous system where the
stimulation current is flowing is directly affected by the electricity. The cells in
the targeted region will be exposed to electricity and as a result their function may
change. The waveform of the electrical currents experienced by the cells depends
on the waveform generated by the stimulator. The decision of what waveform to
apply is complicated for a number of interrelated reasons. First, the ability to
design rational electrotherapies is limited by our incomplete understanding of
brain function and the mechanisms leading to pathology. Second, the interaction
of electricity with neural tissue is complex. Third, there is a very large set of
possible stimulation paradigms, thus empirical determination of an optimal
configuration for a particular application is daunting. Finally, inter-individual and
intra-individual variability of response to stimulation often precludes effective use
of a standard dose in all patients at all stimulation sessions, requiring steps to
individualize the treatment.
Regions of the brain that are functionally connected to the direct target of
stimulation may be indirectly modulated by electrical and magnetic stimulation.
For example, cortical stimulation may activate, inhibit, or otherwise modulate
activity of various cortico-subcortical networks (18). Electrotherapies with direct
targets in the peripheral nervous system, such as VNS, are particularly based on
The cells in the nervous system (neurons) use electrical signals to process and
transmit information. Because the nervous system is an electrical organ, it is
sensitive to electricity. At the cellular level, the effect of applied electricity can be
considered on three inter-related scales (see figure 2). First, the stimulating
electrical currents may change the electrical state of the neurons (e.g., triggering
of action potentials or blocking of firing). Second, changes in neuronal electrical
state may lead to changes in neuromodulator or neurotransmitter activity (e.g.,
endogenous opioids and GABA). Third, the electrical activity on a network of
neurons may be concomitantly altered (e.g., brain oscillations and gate control).
To be therapeutically relevant, these electrical and chemical changes at cellular
and network level must manifest as changes in behavior and/or cognition. Various
Marom Bikson, Abhishek Datta, Maged Elwassif, et al.
basic cellular mechanisms of electrical stimulation have been elucidated (1,29-
32), however, relating cellular modulation to behavioral or cognitive changes
remains a fundamental challenge. As a result, clinical determination of
electrotherapy dose is currently driven largely by empirical considerations and
Figure 2. Schematic of the various levels of neural modulation induced by electrical
stimulation. A) Individual neurons process information through changes in trans-
membrane electrical potentials, including action potentials in axons. Applied electrical
stimulation will modulate the electrical properties of single cells. B) Neuronal
communication at synapses is itself an electrically driven phenomenon which will be
modulated by applied electricity. C) Groups of neurons organize in neuronal networks
which often generate coherent electrical signals such as electric fields oscillations (e.g.
gamma oscillations). This network electrical activity may be modulated by applied
electricity. The effects of applied electricity on single neurons, neurotransmitters, and
neuronal networks can be quantified with biomarkers and in animal studies. However,
relating these cellular and network level changes to complex behavioral and cognitive
outcomes remains a fundamental challenge toward developing rational electrotherapy
Due to the complexity and heterogeneity of strategies for empirical determination
of electrotherapy dose, we limit ourselves to some general cautions here. First, the
therapeutic/behavioral outcome of electrotherapy is not necessarily a monotonic
function of any waveform parameter. For example, increasing stimulation
frequency may first increase efficacy while further frequency increase may reduce
efficacy. Nor is it necessarily possible to optimize each waveform parameter
independently. For example, at stimulation frequency X the optimal amplitude
may be determined as A, but at frequency Y the optimal amplitude may be B.
Further, it is important to distinguish the acute (during stimulation) and plastic
(lasting after stimulation) outcomes of stimulation. It is not necessarily the case
Introduction to electrotherapy technology 21
that an electrotherapy optimized for acute changes will be similarly effective for
plastic change, and vice versa.
Inter-individual variability relates to difference in anatomy, physiology, and
disease etiology across individuals that may fundamentally affect stimulation
outcomes. For example, pain can arise from a myriad of tissues and be transmitted
through distinct neurological pathways. Because of inter-individual variability, the
same stimulation dose applied to two patients may have fundamentally different
outcomes (33,34). Intra-individual variability relates to the dependence of
electrotherapy on the current physiological state on the patient, including physical
and mental states. For this reason, it may be necessary to adjust dose for the same
patient across sessions or as the patient’s response to stimulation changes.
For practitioners optimizing electrotherapy dose, there is generally a large set
of possible parameter settings within the limits of each commercial device, in
combination with an infinite set of possible electrode and coil positions. This
flexibility should not be viewed as a limitation of electrotherapy, compared to, for
example, pharmacological approaches where dosing is limited to far fewer
parameters. The ability to change stimulation parameters (e.g., by the turn of a
knob) and then iteratively optimize therapy in a patient-specific manner is a
fundamental advantage of electrotherapy.
SAFETY OF ELECTROTHERAPY
As with any therapeutic approach, in selecting electrotherapy technology and
dose, safety and efficacy considerations must often be balanced. For example, the
use of implanted electrodes allows focal stimulation of regions inaccessible with
surface electrodes, but is associated with potential surgical complications. Surface
electrodes and coils are non-invasive, but are at some distance from the target,
resulting in less focal stimulation that could induce unintended modulation of
regions around the target.
In the context of waveform selection, commercial stimulation devices
generally add safety features such as the limitations of stimulation intensity,
ramping on/off of stimulation intensity, or automatic waveform controls such as
the use of charge-balanced pulses. These limits are generally predetermined by the
manufacturer and are not necessarily apparent to the clinician programming the
device. However, even though automatic waveform changes may not be
transparent to the clinician, they may still impact efficacy.
Electrotherapy within safety guidelines established by clinicians and
manufacturers is generally well tolerated in the majority of patients (28,35).
Marom Bikson, Abhishek Datta, Maged Elwassif, et al.
None-the-less, fundamental unknowns about the reaction of tissue to electrical
stimulation, combined with the desire by clinicians to explore new stimulation
targets and protocols, warrants continued vigilance on the part of clinicians and
researchers. There are specific safety concerns for each technology. For example,
seizure risk is the major safety concern in rTMS (28). On the other hand,
electrochemical damage is not a factor in TMS, whereas it is of paramount
concern for stimulation with implanted electrodes. Moreover, there are distinct
safety concerns for voltage-controlled and current-controlled stimulation (1). Both
potential tissue damage, and cognitive or behavioral changes induced by
stimulation need to be addressed for each stimulation technology and dose. Even
for some FDA approved treatments, there are lingering and emerging concerns
about potential damage of tissue during normal operation and under unexpected
Electric and magnetic stimulation (electrotherapy) can confer therapeutic benefit
by inducing electrical currents in neural tissue. Electrotherapy paradigms can be
conceptually reduced to two functional components: 1) electrode or coil type and
position, and 2) stimulation waveform. Stimulation paradigms are often broadly
classified based on the electrode/coil location and/or waveform parameters.
Reproducable electrotherapy requires rational control and documentation of
electrical dose. For each electrotherapy technology, there is a balance of efficacy
and safety factors. Basic knowledge of the biophysics of neural stimulation is
necessary for rational determination of electrotherapy dose, however, the present
lack of full understanding of the mechanisms of electrotherapy necessitates
empirical optimization of treatment dose. For this reason, we expect that the full
potential of electrotherapy has yet to be realized. Basic research on the
mechanisms of electrotherapy may thus manifestly improve electrotherapy
outcomes. For in-depth discussions of electrotherapy mechanisms, safety, and
applications we refer the reader to more specialized literature reviews (6,28,38)
and to the other chapters in this book.
Introduction to electrotherapy technology 23
This work was supported in part by NIH (41341-03, 41595-00), PSC-CUNY, and
the Andrew Grove Foundation.
 Merrill DR, Bikson M, Jefferys JG. Electrical stimulation of excitable tissue: design of
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