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China's "Brain Acupuncture" Addiction Cure

By Dirk Hanson 05/27/11

Brain electrodes are being used by Chinese neurosurgeons to treat heroin addiction.

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Photo via thinkstockphotos

Our first reaction to the news of a novel Chinese form of brain surgery for addiction was: not ready for prime time. The new treatment comes our way courtesy of the Shanghai Daily—electric brain acupuncture, with two electrodes inserted deep into the head. This is a vast improvement over an earlier Chinese procedure in which neurosurgeons actually removed portions of the brain. The target in those grisly surgeries was the nucleus accumbens, a tiny organ in the brain’s limbic system that plays a major role in the reward systems activated by addiction. A study published in the journal Addiction chronicled the brain surgeries, which were soon halted. Psychiatrists feared the return of psychosurgery as a treatment for mental illnesses, recalling all too well the horrors of a favorite American form of psychosurgery, the prefrontal lobotomy. Using neurosurgery to treat heroin addiction is not supported by any reputable research. The invasive procedure, says Addiction, involved “drilling holes in the patient’s skull and inserting electrodes deep into the midbrain to ablate the nucleus accumbens or sever the cingulate gyrus.” Like a lobotomy, there is no way to tell what cognitive functions are being damaged or wiped out by such crude procedures.

In order to reboot the program, Chinese neurosurgeons dropped the “ablation” part of the procedure. “Unlike the surgery where a part of the brain is removed, our treatment is minimally invasive and just stimulates a part of the brain to block the addicts’ drug-induced psychological dependency,” explained Dr. Zhou Hongyu of the Renji Hospital in Shangai. The electrical current through the needles is used “to stimulate relative tissues to stop people’s desire to use drugs,” in the words of the Shanghai Daily. As evidence of the method’s success, the paper tells the story of a 24-year old patient with a five-year history of drug abuse who has remained clean for six years after the treatment. As for evidence, that’s about all there is.

Various forms of electrical stimulation of brain regions are now proliferating in the U.S. and elsewhere, some of which are based on sound science, and some of which are sheer quackery. You can buy so-called transcranial magnetic stimulation machines for use in your home or office. But we don’t advise running out to buy one for treating your addiction. Just a bit of research left to do on this one….

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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