Deep Brain Stimulation Could Reduce Heroin Cravings, Study Finds

By Keri Blakinger 02/06/17

DBS has been used to treat Parkinson's disease and studied for use with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Surgeon studying a brain.

Deep brain stimulation could be the next weapon in the fight against heroin addiction, according to scientists at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). 

In a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers studied heroin-addicted rats and found that those treated with DBS had fewer cravings than a control group—a finding that could be a breakthrough in scientists’ understanding of the addicted brain. 

“It has been very difficult to reduce heroin-seeking and -taking in an animal model because heroin is such an addictive drug, but the results here are very impressive,” lead researcher Olivier George, an associate professor in TSRI’s Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders, said in a press release. “This is the type of preclinical evidence that one needs, in order to start testing this strategy in humans.”

DBS, the electrical stimulation of a brain region known as the subthalamic nucleus, is currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease in humans with some success—even though scientists don’t entirely understand what the subthalamic nucleus does. 

In the new study, George and his team allowed rats to self-administer heroin by pressing on a lever. Over a two-week period, the rats would typically up their drug use and start showing signs of addiction. And after a two-week period of clean time, the control group rats would quickly up their intake again. 

“It’s like a human drug user who goes into rehab for two weeks, and then comes back into the real world where he has access to the drug, and starts taking more and more again,” George said.

But the rats who got DBS did not amp up their drug intake after the two-week abstinence, researchers found. And when the DBS was shut off, the rats upped their use again, just like the control group rats. “It was really like an on-off switch,” George said. “Then two days later we turned it on again and their intake came back down.”

Previously, DBS has been studied for use with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

The highly invasive procedure requires brain surgery, typically done while patients are awake to help guide the surgeons through the process. (The brain itself does not feel pain and the head can be numbed with a local anesthetic.)

Surgeons begin by drilling two holes into the patient’s head and inserting electrodes into the relevant region of the brain. Battery-operated generators are implanted into the chest to deliver electrical impulses. 

Although the procedure can cause side effects ranging from infection to stroke to movement disorders, researchers posited that the risk of some of those unwanted effects could be reduced with lower shock intensity. 

“We think the low intensity of stimulation will affect only the emotional, motivational part of the subthalamic nucleus and not the part that’s involved in controlling muscle movements,” George said.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.