Scientific Progress in Fighting Addiction

The statistics are frightening. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 70,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2017, a number which doubled in 10 years. That translates into about 200 people dying every day from drug use, and the number continues to rise. More than half the overdose deaths were attributed to opioid use.

While many addicts have found recovery with the help of a treatment center or other addiction specialists, there are still those who have been unable to overcome addictive impulses. Recent studies using Deep Brain Stimulation to treat addiction have shown promise.

What is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)?

DBS is a procedure where a neurostimulator device and electrodes are implanted in the brain, to send a controlled electrical charge to areas of the brain that govern certain impulses. The neurostimulator is a programmable, battery-operated pacemaker. The surgical procedure was first approved by the FDA in 1997 for treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and essential tremor. Since then it has also been approved to treat dystonia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and epilepsy. DBS is now being studied as a potential treatment for addiction.

DBS to Treat Addiction

Studies of DBS to treat addiction began in China. The subject of one of their recent studies was a man who struggled for years with meth addiction. He had been in rehabilitation centers several times, without success, but after his DBS surgery was finally able to reach 6 months of sobriety. A separate study in China was published in January, showing that five of eight heroin users remained sober for two years after their DBS surgery. According to a U.S. National Institutes of Health database there are now eight registered DBS clinical trials worldwide for drug addiction.

DBS Coming to America

Although the FDA has been cautious about authorizing clinical trials in the U.S., in February they approved a small clinical trial in West Virginia of DBS for opioid use disorder. Interestingly, West Virginia has one of the highest numbers of drug overdose deaths from opioids in the country. The study will be led by Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

As with any surgical procedure, there are risks associated with DBS. Side effects may include a brain hemorrhage, seizure, infection, or personality changes. However, the few studies that have been completed so far indicate that DBS could be a viable treatment option for addiction.
There are many methods for fighting substance use disorders, and as research on the subject continues to expand, we are adding more tools to the toolkit to fight this crisis.