A man living in the state with the highest rate of opioid deaths in America is the first participant of a trial of a technique designed to help beat addiction. He’s had a computer chip and electrodes implanted in the addiction center of his brain where they will send signals designed to limit cravings. Three others are about to undergo the same treatment, after which their progress will be studied to see if wider application is justified.
Science fiction writers have been considering the implications of putting computer chips in people’s brains for decades. So far, however, the main application of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) has been to control Parkinson’s disease sufferers’ tremors. Successes have yielded heart-warming videos, and DBS has recently been approved for use against epilepsy.
Now, West Virginia University is the first to apply the idea to fighting addiction.
DBS involves planting electrodes in critical areas of the brain to produce electric pulses at frequencies carefully tuned to enhance positive brain waves and disrupt harmful signals.
Although DBS success rates have improved as neurosurgeons gain experience at conducting the operation, there are still risks involved, including mispositioned implants and infections. Consequently, it is never done lightly. In order to qualify for the trial, patients needed to have opioid addictions that have failed to respond to other treatment programs.
The first implant recipient is Gerod Buckhalter, a 33-year-old man with more than a decade of opioid and benzodiazepine use and a history of relapses and life-threatening overdoses.
Last year members of the same team applied DBS to patients with Alzheimer’s disease, hoping to break down the plaques that are a symptom, and possibly cause, of the condition. Results have yet to be published as to whether this has achieved its goal of restoring memory, or at least slowing its decline.
“Despite our best efforts using current, evidence-based treatment modalities, there exist a number of patients who simply don’t respond. Some of these patients remain at very high risk for ongoing catastrophic health problems and even death. DBS could prove to be a valuable tool in our fight to keep people alive and well,” said Dr James Berry, interim chair of the West Virginia University Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry, in a statement.
Fictional brain chips to alter behavior usually exert absolute control, like Spike’s no biting block. There’s no expectation Buckhalter and the other participants in the study will be barred from opioid use in the same way, but their cravings may be eased sufficiently for them to defeat their own demons.