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A Cure for Addiction, at the Cost of Pleasure

Chinese doctors are working on an addiction "cure" that destroys some of the brain's "pleasure centers."

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Is it worth it? Photo via

By Maia Szalavitz

12/13/12

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Is curing addiction worth the potential loss of all other types of pleasure and desire? Some Chinese surgeons think so, and are performing an operation that selectively destroys parts of a key node in the brain’s pleasure circuitry, known as the nucleus accumbens. When this surgery first made international news in 2004, there was outrage over the lack of knowledge of long-term effects and the obvious ethical concerns. The Chinese health ministry banned the procedure for all uses except research. Adding to the controversy was the fact that some surgeons make most of their income from bonuses received for bringing in hospital patients for operations—and over 1,000 people with opioid addictions and alcoholism were treated before the ban.

As reported in TIME, however, the recent publication of what the authors claim to be positive results of the research in a Western journal is stirring even more debate—especially when some of the authors continue to advertise the operation to patients online:

The latest study is the third published since 2003 in Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery, which isn’t the only journal chronicling results from the procedure, known as ablation of the nucleus accumbens. In October, the journal World Neurosurgery also published results from the same researchers, who are based at Tangdu Hospital in Xi’an.

The authors, led by Guodong Gao, claim that the surgery is “a feasible method for alleviating psychological dependence on opiate drugs.” At the same time, they report that more than half of the 60 patients had lasting side effects, including memory problems and loss of motivation. Within five years, 53% had relapsed and were addicted again to opiates, leaving 47% drug free.

Are 50/50 odds of recovery worth possibly never feeling joy again, not to mention the risk of losing motivation, ambition and sexual desire? And is it even possible for anyone to comprehend what that risk actually means? 

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