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IBSA Foundation_Hypnosis to fight chronic pain
Paolo Rossi Castelli01 Feb 20242 min read

Hypnosis to fight chronic pain: new research from America

A study by psychiatrists at Stanford University used mild electrical current to “target” precise locations in the brain. This enhanced hypnotisability and, consequently, increased the possibility of alleviating pain.

Hypnosis, which is actually a sort of hyper-focused attention, can be useful in the treatment of certain issues, and especially in combating chronic pain, stress and addiction. However, not every person is equally hypnotisable, for reasons—as has been proven—that depend on variations in certain segments of the genetic code, intelligence quotient and personality type. On average, according to well-substantiated estimates, about two-thirds of people can be hypnotised, but only 15% of people are highly hypnotisable.

Now, a study published in the scientific journal Nature Mental Health by psychiatrists at Stanford University (United States) suggests a new way to increase this percentage, by means of the brief application of a mild electrical current (neurostimulation) to specific areas of the brain.

The researchers focused, in particular, on two areas that, more than others, appear involved in hypnosis: the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (that is its scientific name), which is responsible for decision making, and the dorsal anterior cortex located near the cingulum, which plays a role in processing stimuli. Hypnotisability depends on how strongly these two zones are connected, but, as the researchers discovered, this connection can be temporarily enhanced by passing a mild electrical current through the skull, in the location where the connection between these two areas exists.

A personalised treatment for every patient

In order to prove their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 80 people suffering from fibromyalgia, a condition characterised by diffuse and persistent pain throughout the body, for which no specific treatment exists (for patients such as these, hypnosis can help to alleviate the pain).

A cap was used to administer to half of the volunteers, over the course of 46 seconds, 800 pulses of electricity to a precise location in the left prefrontal cortex, chosen based on each person’s individual brain structure. The other half of the participants in the study received a fake current instead, as a placebo (without their knowledge, of course). The researchers then assessed the participants’ hypnotisability on a scale from one to ten. They saw that the people who received the stimulation, unlike the others, gained one point and had therefore become more hypnotisable. After an hour, the effect had faded.

This result was seen as being highly significant, because people have been trying for over one hundred years, using a wide variety of methods, to alter individuals’ hypnotisability, and it had come to be believed that it was impossible to change (among the studies conducted was one that lasted 25 years, which confirmed the consistent nature of this trait).

New scenarios for hypnosis in psychotherapy

The fact that, on the contrary, it has been shown that it is possible to temporarily enhance hypnotisability opens up the door to new scenarios, at a time when numerous studies are being conducted involving the application of electrical or magnetic stimulation to the brain.

If the results of this study are confirmed through further trials, the clinical use of hypnosis may be expanded. Moreover, similar stimulation is likely to be of help in traditional psychotherapy as well, but more studies will be needed in order to confirm this possible additional application.



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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.