Scientists discover a way to make people more hypnotizable with electrical brain stimulation

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Scientists have found a way to make people easier to hypnotize — by pulsing electrical waves through their brain.

Hypnosis, a changed state of awareness and increased relaxation that allows for improved focus and concentration, has been used for years to help with chronic conditions like fibromyalgia — where sufferers experience extreme pain when they move their body.

But the treatment option — which aims to alter how someone perceives pain in order to reduce symptoms — has failed for many who are not hypnotized effectively.

Now, however, researchers at Stanford University in California say they have ‘cracked the code’ to significantly raise the chance of a patient being hypnotized.

In a study involving 80 fibromyalgia sufferers, half had electrical waves fired into their prefrontal cortex — an area at the front of the brain involved with processing pain.

Results showed participants who received the electrical stimulation were significantly easier to hypnotize.

Researchers at Stanford University in California say they have ‘cracked the code’ to significantly raise the chance of a patient being hypnotized (stock image)

About four million adults in the US have fibromyalgia, while another 51million suffer from chronic pain — pain they have been struggling with for years with no relief.

Many of these adults may also be overweight or obese, have unhealthy diets or lack exercise and a number are offered hypnosis as a treatment for their pain.

During a hypnosis session performed by a psychiatrist, patients are described as being moved into a trance-like state where they have improved focus and concentration.

Patients are initially asked to relax and visualize a pleasant location, such as a beach or tropical island. During the session, psychiatrists then suggest they feel sensations associated with these locations when they experience pain.

Experts say this helps to alter how patients perceive and respond to pain signals from their body.

Other treatments for fibromyalgia include painkillers, physical therapy and lifestyle changes such as a better diet and more exercise.

For the study, participants were split into two groups when they arrived at the clinic.

They received either two 46-second applications of electrical waves to their brains, with 800 pulses delivered during each session. The pulses are not thought to hurt or cause discomfort.

These were delivered using a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device, which was placed onto the head. 

The second group of participants underwent a placebo treatment where a device was placed onto their head that imitated the TMS device, but did not send out any electrical pulses.

Researchers did a hypnosis session with each patient before and immediately after they were exposed to the TMS device. 

They also did a hypnosis session again one hour after the treatment.

The trial was double-blind, meaning neither patients nor researchers were aware who was in which group.

Results showed participants who received the treatment were significantly more likely to be hypnotized afterward — but the effect wore off within an hour.

There was no effect recorded in the placebo treatment group.

Clinicians assessed how hypnotizable a patient was using a medically-approved questionnaire. 

Dr Noah Williams, a psychiatrist involved in the study, said: ‘We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to, with 92 seconds of stimulation, change a stable brain trait that people have been trying to change for 100 years.

‘We finally cracked the code on how to do it.’

Dr Afik Faerman, a psychiatrist also involved in the study, added: ‘We know hypnosis is an effective treatment for many different symptoms and disorders, particularly pain.

‘But we also know that not everyone benefits equally from hypnosis.’

Studies suggest about two thirds of the population is susceptible to hypnosis, with another 15 percent considered highly susceptible.

The study was published in the journal Nature Mental Health. 



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