It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but implanting tiny electrodes into a patient’s brain may actually be able to change behavior and further, it may help those struggling with addiction. This treatment is called deep brain stimulation and it is not new. This interesting method has been around for over a decade, but only recently are doctors and scientists beginning to realize its potential for the treatment of drug abuse disorders and addiction.

In the past, the primary application of this treatment was for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome, and doctors and patients with these conditions have seen some success. Most might find it difficult to see a connection between those disorders and addiction, but they are more closely related than you might think.  That relationship is exactly why doctors are using deep brain stimulation to treat substance abuse disorders, and is why for some, they are also finding success in this realm.

Read on to learn more about deep brain stimulation and why it may be an excellent solution for people who are struggling with addiction. This treatment is invasive and expensive, but it may help some who have tried literally everything else in their efforts to break free from addiction.

What is Deep Brain Stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation is an invasive, neurosurgical medical procedure. A neurosurgeon implants a medical device called a neurostimulator into the brain of the patient. This device, also known as a “brain pacemaker,” sends electrical impulses to specific targets in the brain through electrodes that have been placed in strategic locations.

The goal of the placement of these devices and the electrical impulses is to change brain activity in a controlled manner. Even the doctors that developed this treatment are not entirely sure how it works, but it has been used to treat individuals with Parkinson’s disease since 1997, dystonia since 2003, obsessive-compulsive disorder since 2009 and epilepsy since 2018.

More recently, doctors have tested its use in clinical trials for treatment for chronic pain and depression.  Now, doctors believe it can be used for addiction, too.

Parkinson’s Disease

Successes with people with Parkinson’s disease are highly reported. Use of deep brain stimulation to help control Parkinson’s symptoms such as tremors frequent; however, this treatment is only used as a last resort after many other medications and treatments have been tried and exhausted, or if the patient has an intolerance to possible medications. Although it does not often entirely cure a patient’s tremors, it can improve them immensely.

Tourette syndrome

Deep brain stimulation can also be used to treat adults with severe Tourette syndrome. It is currently only in experimental stages, but some researchers and doctors have seen early signs of possible success. Presently, although it does seem to show some progress in reducing tics and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, it does not always last for the long term, it is expensive, and it requires long-term care from an expert.

Chronic Pain

Studies on the effects of deep brain stimulation on people with chronic pain have been inconclusive but show some promise. One study of people with cancer found that thirteen out of seventeen subjects felt little to no pain after participating in deep brain stimulation therapy.

Depression & Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

There have been a small number of clinical trials to test deep brain stimulation treatment on people who are suffering from severe depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although the data is limited, this method seems to have some positive effect. Of course, again, this is invasive surgery and most candidates may be hesitant to try it; even if it does prove to be effective, it would only be used as a last resort for people who have had no success from medication and other therapies.

The Common Thread

What do all of the above conditions have to do with each other? Why is it that deep brain stimulation seems to work on each of them, and how does that tie in with addiction treatment?

The answer is simple. Each of the above conditions has to do with negative or haywire brain impulses. By using deep brain stimulation’s electrodes to redirect electrical impulses in the brain, the symptoms or stimuli that cause each of the above conditions can be altered in a more positive way.

If drug abuse disorders are caused by brain impulses, then it makes sense that electrical stimulation of those impulses in a more positive direction would work for these disorders, too.

Deep Brain Stimulation for Addiction

A number of different groups of doctors and researchers around the country believe that deep brain stimulation can and will be an effective treatment for addiction. Although this treatment is not available nor even approved yet, many doctors are working towards that end through various studies and clinical trials.

Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California are one group that is working on this treatment. They have already had some success in using non-invasive electrodes attached to the outside of the skull to help control addictive impulses. Their next step is to try it internally through deep brain stimulation.  The group has done this with laboratory rats addicted to heroin with some success; soon, they will try it on humans who are addicted to opioids.

At West Virginia University just this week, researchers began the very first clinical trial of deep brain stimulation on a drug-addicted patient. This research is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is a direct result of the continued growth of the opioid epidemic in our country. The trial’s first participant is a thirty-three-year-old man with a history of opioid and benzodiazepine use.  The neurostimulator device has been implanted into the reward centers section of his brain and will attempt to reroute cravings through electrical impulses when the subject demonstrates a strong desire to e.  He is one of four patients participating in this initial trial; all four of them have had little success with all other treatment methods.

Treatment of the Future?

It will be interesting to see the results of this research in the short and long term.  Obviously, all participants, their doctors, and anyone interested in the field of addiction recovery are waiting with bated breath to see if there is overall success or failure.

Even if this treatment is successful, however, it is very expensive and likely will not be available to or affordable for most people struggling with addiction for many decades, if ever.  However, if it is successful, it will at the very least help to teach doctors, researchers, and addiction recovery professionals more about substance abuse disorders and how they work on the brain.  As medical technology continues to grow and advance, this information will be very useful and will likely become a vital part of how addiction is treated.  This is exciting new research no matter what happens, and it will surely change the lives of many in both the short and long term.

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Resources:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/deep-brain-stimulation/about/pac-20384562

https://www.parkinson.org/Understanding-Parkinsons/Treatment/Surgical-Treatment-Options/Deep-Brain-Stimulation

https://tourette.org/research-medical/deep-brain-stimulation/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/1097-0142%2819860315%2957%3A6%3C1266%3A%3AAID-CNCR2820570634%3E3.0.CO%3B2-Q

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30064320