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Testing Brain Stimulation Therapy as a Method to Curb Opioid Addiction

photo of a silhouette of a head with a chip implanted in the middle, in relation to Deep Brain Stimulation therapy

A switch in the brain that can be literally flipped to turn off substance dependence? Researchers think it’s possible. West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RIN) is exploring the possibility of using Deep Brain Stimulation therapy (DBS therapy) as a method to assist patients in beating opioid addiction. The method has already been used to treat various neurological diseases—from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder and tremors to Parkinson’s disease.

For patients who have been resistant to known intervention methods against opioid use disorder, brain stimulation therapy offers hope. Correspondingly, similar research is being carried out in Europe and China. Though still in its early stage, the study bears promising answers.

Opioid Crisis: A Quick Look at the Numbers

Clearly, an opioid crisis is looming over the country, and steps to curb the problem are urgently needed. In 2017, opioid overdose death reached 47,600 or over 130 deaths per day. Several states saw a significant increase in opioid overdose-related deaths. The list includes Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—to name a few.

Deaths from opioid overdose in the U.S. can be divided into three distinct waves. The first wave occurred in the 1990s with the increase of use in prescription opioids. By the year 2010, heroin was the popular opioid drug. The rise of heroin marked the second wave of opioid deaths. The third wave was marked by the rise of synthetic opioids—such as the likes of fentanyl. Across these three waves of the opioid crisis from 1999-2017, almost 400,000 have died due to opioid drug overdose.

Besides the rising number of deaths, some children were left behind by parents who have passed on, and some families were torn apart—all because of the addiction. Indeed, the discovery of new methods like deep brain stimulation therapy to curb the said addiction is timely and potentially lifesaving.

Deep Brain Stimulation Therapy: Application on Opioid Addiction

Thirty-three-year-old Gerod Buckhalter is the first of the four patients to undergo the treatment. Buckhalter—along with the 48.5 million Americans who are similarly under the grip of substance abuse—will significantly benefit from this technology. The procedure involves implanting electrodes in the patient’s brain. Like a pacemaker, once the implant is in place, it will fire stimulus or electronic pulses to the reward center of the brain to stimulate the human body.

cartoon drawing of a man's head with a chip implanted in his brain as part of the process for brain stimulation therapy
Brain stimulation therapy is a treatment method that proves timely and potentially lifesaving.

Opioids work by binding to pain receptors in the brain and spinal cord, thus making the substance a potent medication against chronic pains. Besides blocking pain receptors, opioid also triggers the release of neurotransmitters called endorphins. A surge in endorphins can boost feelings of well-being and pleasure. Instead of relying on an opioid dose, the patient is assured that the implants’ electrical signals will stimulate the brain’s reward center. Hence, for patients grappling with addiction and trying all forms of treatment in vain, brain stimulation therapy is a positive development.

A Bold Hope Yet for People With Addiction

Addiction is a complex and chronic disease. As the reasons for the onset of an addiction can vary from one person to another, finding the treatment method that works for the individual is crucial for the success of the treatment. For some, counseling and behavioral therapies can work. For some, medication combined with therapy works wonders.  However, there are those who are still resistant to known treatment methods. With the help of brain stimulation therapy paired with the goal of helping patients beat their addiction, we hope to see more recovering individuals return to the fold of society.

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