Migraine is the most common neurological condition in the developed world. It affects over 15% of the UK population and is a more than just a headache; it can cause intense throbbing, visual disturbance and nausea and attacks can be so severe that sufferers have to take time off work.
Recently, a team at Ohio State University showed that zapping the brain with a magnetic field, using transcranial magnetic stimulation, TMS, can abort attacks as they start to develop, when sufferers see an "aura" , a disturbing pattern of zig zags, stars or flashes.
But the coil has to be applied to precisely the right part of the brain to be effective and now a simpler method to achieve the same effect, using two electrodes, is to be tested on migraine sufferers around the country by Prof Vince Walsh of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Queen Square.
"We need to get brain stimulation into the home - you can't nip off to see your neurologist when you know you're going to have a migraine".
He will be discussing the method at the end of the month at a major conference of 300 researchers from around the world in London. The meeting is organised by the UCL institute with Magstim, the British company that pioneered TMS and is now developing stimulators that are easily portable and simple to use.
These new brain stimulators, called DC machines, introduce very weak electrical currents. But like TMS, DC also has the same effect of changing the "excitability" of brain cells, either damping down their reactivity or boosting it, which can change the way that the brain responds.
Although the prototype electrical stimulator costs around £5000, the hope is that the costs will fall as more are used. The device is much easier to use than TMS since it does not have to be precisely positioned over the correct brain region, which is currently done with a brain scanner.
The electrical version simply requires two electrodes, colour coded pink and yellow, to be put on head. Then a current passes between them, through the brain.
The method promises to have long lasting results for up to 90 minutes.
"This is a huge advantage of DC because TMS effects only last for a few minutes," says Prof Walsh, who expects the results of his trial next year.
The same techniques can help people cope with the aftermath of a stroke too. Both magnetic and electrical stimulation can sensitise the brain immediately before physiotherapy, so they can help a stroke patient to regain the ability to move a paralysed limb.
Recent trials suggest that the method is capable of improving speech and the ability to make arm and hand movements by making the brain more plastic, so areas spared by the stroke are coopted to take over from those that have been damaged.
"Patients can be helped to learn to grip cutlery, turn water taps, pout things - simple everyday abilities they may have lost after a stroke," he says. "The method helps the brain find new solutions. There is a wholly convincing study of the benefits with stroke in a trial at the National Institutes of Health in America," adds Prof Walsh.