Hypnosis has long been used to treat and manage a host of psychiatric and neurologic symptoms. However, not all patients respond equally to this therapy type. About two thirds of the general adult population are estimated to be at least somewhat hypnotizable, and 15% are highly hypnotizable.

Through brain imaging, the Stanford team found that high hypnotizability is associated with greater functional connectivity between the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

“A novel aspect of this trial is that we used the person’s own brain networks, based on brain imaging, to target the right spot,” Co-senior author Nolan Williams, MD, with Stanford University, California, said in a news release.

The team chose patients with chronic pain because hypnosis has been shown to be a “highly effective analgesic that has a far better risk/benefit ratio than widely overutilized opioids that have serious fatal overdose potential,” Spiegel told Medscape Medical News.

The pre-to-post SHIFT change in hypnotic induction profile scores, a standardized measure of hypnotizability, was significantly greater in the active vs sham group after just 92 seconds of stimulation (P = .046).

Only the active SHIFT group showed a significant increase in hypnotizability following stimulation, an effect that lasted for about 1 hour.

“Increasing hypnotizability in people who are low-to-medium hypnotizable individuals could improve both the efficacy and effectiveness of therapeutic hypnosis as a clinical intervention,” the researchers wrote.

They note that because this was a “mechanistic study,” it did not explore the impact of increased hypnotizability on disease symptoms. They also note that further studies are needed to assess the dose-response relationships of SHIFT.

Transformative Research

“This line of research is fascinating,” Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, neurologist, and researcher in Boston, told Medscape Medical News.

“We are nearing an era of personalized, noninvasive brain modulation. The ability to individually modulate the DLPFC opens new possibilities for brain health beyond hypnotizability for fibromyalgia,” said Lakhan, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“The DLPFC is involved in executive functions (and disorders) like attention (ADHD), emotional regulation (depression), motivation (schizophrenia), and impulse control (addiction),” he noted.

“Soon we may no longer need large expensive devices like transcranial magnetic stimulators as in this research study. Smartphones could deliver tailored digital therapeutics by engaging specific brain circuits,” Lakhan predicted.

“Imagine using an app to receive treatment customized to your unique brain and needs — all without anything implanted and delivered anywhere. The potential to precisely modulate the brain’s wiring to enhance cognition and mental health, without surgery or physical constraints, is incredibly promising. The possibilities are intriguing and could truly transform how we address brain diseases,” he added.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Williams is a named inventor on Stanford-owned intellectual property relating to accelerated TMS pulse pattern sequences and neuroimaging-based TMS targeting; has served on scientific advisory boards for Otsuka, NeuraWell, Magnus Medical, and Nooma as a paid advisor; and holds equity/stock options in Magnus Medical, NeuraWell, and Nooma. Spiegel is a cofounder of Reveri Health, Inc., an interactive hypnosis app (not utilized in the current study).