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Can Brain Implants Treat Drug Addicts? Chinese Doctors Use Eye Deep Brain Stimulation For Opioid Addiction Treatment

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Imagine a magical machine that can switch off addiction in the brain. That machine is what Chinese researchers are using to treat methamphetamine and opioid addiction in patients for the first time ever.
  ( Geoff B. Hall | Wikimedia Commons )

Doctors at the Ruijin Hospital in China are conducting a clinical trial on patients with drug addiction using eye deep brain stimulation, a metal device that is drilled into and implanted in the brain.

Such a controversial technique has long been used to treat movement disorders like Parkinson's disease.

Magical Machine Controls Emotions, Prevents Drug Relapse

The first patient in China to receive deep brain stimulation treatment is a man named Yan. He became addicted to methamphetamine in 2011 after his wife gave birth to his son.

Yan's drug addiction cost him his family, his money, and his health. His wife divorced him and he rarely saw his son. He lost at least $150,000 because of gambling.

What Yan did was get checked into a hospital for rehab and move to a new place to escape bad influences. He also even learned Chinese traditional medicine. All this did not work and he relapsed.

Yan decided to get treated using deep brain stimulation. The surgeon at Ruijin Hospital, Dr. Li Dianyou, drilled through Yan's skull and inserted two electrodes to his nucleus accumbens, which is a small structure near the base of the forebrain. This part of the brain has been linked to addiction.

After this first operation, Yan underwent a second surgery in which he was implanted with a battery pack in his chest to power the electrodes in his head. His surgeon has a tablet that can adjust the machine inside Yan. The surgeon can tweak the machine to control Yan's emotions, making him feel excited or agitated in just one click.

"This machine is pretty magical," Yan said. "He adjusts it to make you happy and you're happy, to make you nervous and you're nervous."

After six months, Yan said he has been clean and off from drugs. When he first started the treatment, he was thin and sickly, and his face was scabby. Now, his skin cleared and he gained 20 pounds. He tried to return to his wife, but she has a new husband and a baby on the way.

Using Deep Brain Stimulation To Treat Drug Addiction In The US

China is becoming a hub for deep brain stimulation therapy because of its strict, punitive anti-drug laws that force addicts into compulsory treatment and rehabilitation.

The country has a massive patient population plus the support of government funding and medical device companies. Currently, there are six deep brain stimulation clinical trials in China, according to a database from the National Institutes of Health.

Meanwhile, scientists in Europe have struggled to find participants for the same studies, while the United States has not greenlighted any deep brain stimulation studies because of complex ethical and social questions it entails.

That doesn't mean there aren't any efforts in the United States at all. In fact, researchers from the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute are awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration so that they could begin a small clinical trial for the opioid addiction treatment using deep brain stimulation.

"People are dying. Their lives are devastated," said Dr. Ali Rezai, head of the West Virginia University trial. "It's a brain issue. We need to explore all options."

The results of China's studies are mixed. A case report revealed that a patient who had heroin addiction had fatally overdosed after receiving deep brain stimulation therapy. Another case report showed that five of eight heroin patients successfully stayed off drugs after receiving the surgery.

Dr. Sun Bomin, director of the Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai, said doctors should always think of the welfare of patients first and foremost.

"They are human beings," Bomin said. "You cannot say, 'Oh, we do not have any help, any treatment for you guys'."

Chinese doctors in Shanghai are using deep brain stimulation therapy to treat drug addiction in patients in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial. Deep brain stimulation therapy requires the use of brain implants, a controversial technique that has yet to be used in the United States.

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