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NIH grant extends nonpharmacological pain research to Alzheimer’s patients

Dr. Brian Ahn
Dr. Brian Ahn
Lab coordinator Lindsey Park and Dr. Brian Ahn demonstrate take-home equipment to be used by Alzheimer’s patients.
(L-R) Lab coordinator Lindsey Park and Dr. Brian Ahn demonstrate take-home equipment to be used by Alzheimer’s patients. (Photo courtesy Sherri Deatherage Green)

(July 14, 2020) Associate Professor Hyochol “Brian” Ahn’s research into brain stimulation as an approach for treating pain without medication has taken another step forward with a new grant to study applying the technique to patients with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Ahn, PhD, ANP-BC, is the Cizik School of Nursing’s Theodore J. and Mary E. Trumble Professor in Aging Research. His most recent grant from National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), titled “Home-based Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation for Pain Management in Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease (R15NR018050),” was awarded July 6, 2020. 

The one-year, $154,310 award supplements Ahn’s ongoing, three-year randomized trial of employing self-administered transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to treat osteoarthritic knee pain in older adults. Through this approach, the patient wears a special cap that delivers tiny electrical charges to stimulate areas of the brain that perceive pain. Earlier this year, Ahn and his team received an additional $2.4 million NIH/NINR grant to study use of the home-based tDCS in combination with mindfulness-based meditation. 

“Dr. Ahn’s research is exploring new frontiers in pain management,” said Constance Johnson, PhD, associate dean and Maria C. and Christopher J. Pappas Family Distinguished Chair of the Cizik School of Nursing’s research department. “This expansion of his work holds great promise for improving the lives of Alzheimer’s patients and their families.” 

The new study will pilot applying the technology in a home-based environment with Alzheimer’s patients and their informal caregivers. It will not be limited to knee pain and will focus on reducing the aggressive or problematic behavior that can result from chronic pain. 

“People with cognitive impairments can’t always articulate how they feel. Instead, they may act out when they experience pain,” Ahn explained. Family members or other informal caregivers in the home will use the equipment provided by Ahn’s team to facilitate the brain stimulation treatments and will complete surveys to track behavior changes. 

Paul E. Schulz, MD, is a co-investigator on the pilot study and will assist in recruiting 40 patient/caregiver pairs, who will be divided equally into groups that receive the treatment versus a sham protocol. Dr. Schulz is Professor NTC, Rick McCord Professor in Neurology, and Umphrey Family Professor in Neurodegenerative Diseases in the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. 

Read more about this grant on the NIH website.

by Sherri Deatherage Green


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Hyochol "Brian" Ahn, PhD, RN, MSN, MS-ECE, MS-CTS, ANP-BC

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