Experimental Brain Implant To Curb Addiction Being Tested In China

By Lindsey Weedston 05/14/19

Doctors in China have already completed multiple case studies on this treatment with varied results. 

doctor examining xray of experimental brain implant

Researchers in China have been testing deep brain stimulation (DBS) on human subjects as a possible way to treat addiction, including to opioids, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The process includes drilling holes into the skull in order to place electrodes in the brain that electrically stimulate the nucleus accumbens, which scientists believe are involved in addiction, in a fashion similar to a pacemaker.

DBS has been used successfully to treat movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, but results in the treatment of addiction have been mixed. Due to the complex nature of addiction disorders and ethical restrictions on such a radical therapy, as well as the high costs, human trials on DBS for addiction have been slow to come to the U.S.

Two large-scale trials conducted five years ago in the U.S. for the treatment of depression failed, causing researchers to essentially start over in regards to their understanding of DBS for mental illness.

“We’ve had a reset in the field,” said UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Nader Pouratian. Despite the urgency around finding effective treatments for opioid addiction as overdose death rates have skyrocketed in recent years, Pouratian believes testing DBS treatment for the disorder should only be green-lit “if we can move forward in ethical, well-informed, well-designed studies.”

In China, where ethical standards for medical testing are not as strict as they are in the U.S., doctors have already completed multiple case studies on this treatment with varied results. One patient fatally overdosed on heroin three months after receiving the brain implant. Others have remained sober for years.

The AP report focuses on “Yan,” a young Chinese man who has been struggling with meth addiction for years and has relapsed multiple times after stints in rehab. When given the option, he jumped at the chance to receive the DBS surgery. He had already lost his job and his family to his addiction and feels that he has weak willpower.

After getting the brain implant, doctors inserted a battery into Yan’s chest to power the device. With the press of a button, his doctor has been able to change his mood from happy to agitated and back. 

“This machine is pretty magical,” Yan says. “He adjusts it to make you happy and you’re happy, to make you nervous and you’re nervous. It controls your happiness, anger, grief and joy.”

Yan has been sober for six months after the surgery and reported being able to refuse drugs when offered. 

Back in the U.S., the FDA has green-lit a single small human trial testing the use of DBS for opioid addiction, which is tentatively scheduled to begin in June at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

“People are dying,” said the leader of the study Dr. Ali Rezai. “Their lives are devastated. It’s a brain issue. We need to explore all options.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston