Story At A Glance
- More than 130 people die each day in the U.S. from an overdose to opioids.
- In an experimental program, four people suffering from addiction had electrodes connected to an area of the brain that responds to rewards.
- Deep brain stimulation may also treat pain and depression.
The opioid epidemic is a devastating reminder that addiction is a medical illness, and millions of people are not getting the appropriate and necessary treatment. More than 130 people die each day from an overdose, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s led some experts to search for novel forms of treatment, such as implanting electrodes on specific parts of the brain.
A device called the deep brain stimulator operates like a heart pacemaker, reports the Washington Post. Four people are enrolled in a pilot program based at West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and WVU Medicine to test this treatment to to ensure it’s safe before the technique can go on to clinical trials. A surgeon implants electrodes in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that responds to rewards and has been shown to respond strongly to opioids. Because major surgery is required to implant the electrodes, it’s not recommended unless it really is the last resort for patients who haven’t responded to any other types of treatment.
Addiction is a real medical condition. In a recent special collection in Science Advances, Benjamin Xu and Kevin S. LaBar write that substance use disorder (SUD) can be defined as a “medical illness with altered behavioral, cognitive, physical, neurobiological, and affective functions associated with compulsive and repeated use of addictive substance(s), whether legal or illegal.” SUDs share similar addiction stages that include intoxication, withdrawal and craving. In the body, the neurobiological systems related to reward, stress, emotion and executive function experience changes in regulation, or dysregulation.
Deep brain stimulation has also received attention and funding for its potential to treat pain and depression. Some people who have gone through treatments for depression have reported reductions in symptoms after one month. It’s also been used to help treat Parkinson’s, movement disorders and other health conditions.
If brain surgery seems like an extreme treatment to some, there are other promising treatments being developed for opioid addiction. Two medications, methadone and buprenorphine-naloxone, have been shown to have long-term positive benefits for people with opioid addictions. Neuroscientists found that an integrative approach using mindfulness and a cognitive approach to restructure responses to rewards might be effective for some opioid users. Another group of researchers found that acupuncture at a specific point in the body could help with alcohol-related withdrawal.
Although scientists aren’t completely certain of the exact mechanisms for how this type of deep brain stimulation treatment works and changes the brain, it could potentially help people who haven’t responded to other treatments for opioid addiction. We will only be able to know if this technique goes to clinical trials and if those results prove promising.