light bulb in the shape of a brain illuminating

Researchers at Washington University say they have figured out a way to use light to stimulate the opioid receptors in the brain instead of opiate drugs. They claim that one day it may be possible to use light, rather than drugs, to get the same pain control effects we currently get with opiates.

Turning a Light on in the Brain

One problem with researching how opioids achieve their effects is that opioid receptors play many roles in the body. They play a role in breathing, digestion, and reward-based learning. It’s the latter that’s so problematic for addiction and abuse of opioid pain relievers. People get positive feelings from using opioids so they want to use them more and more.

Researchers hoped to be able to isolate some of the functions of opioids by stimulating some of them in a different fashion. To do this, they combined opioid receptors with the rhodopsin protein, which responds to light in the retina.

They then tested these receptors in a test tube and found that when light was shone on them, they released the chemicals these receptors normally release in response to opiate drugs. To prove that these receptors would be capable of initiating the sufficient chemical responses in the brain, they injected them into the brain of mice that had a light-emitting diode (LED) implanted. When researchers turned the light on, the mice received a reward as if they had been given opium.

Researchers were then able to demonstrate that mice could be conditioned to perform behaviors related to the light in a similar fashion to the way they were conditioned using morphine.

Drug Free Pain Relief

The goal of this research is to ultimately create a drug-free way to activate the pain control functions of opiates without activating any of the side effects. That would allow us to turn off chronic pain, literally with the flip of a light switch.

However, researchers admit that this level of pain control is far off. In the meantime, for TMJ and headache sufferers, we have a drug-free option for control of chronic pain today. To learn more about how TMJ treatment can help control your pain, please call (803) 781-9090 for an appointment with a Columbia, SC TMJ dentist at Smile Columbia Dentistry.