Scientists in China have carried out the world’s first clinical trial of deep brain stimulation (DBS) for drug addicts. The procedure is invasive in nature and requires drilling of two holes into the patient’s skull and then placing electrodes into the brain of the patient. The said electrodes can be electronically stimulated using a handheld device.
This technology has already been employed for disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. However, this is the first time that deep brain stimulation is being used for treating drug addiction. The first trial is focused on methamphetamine addiction and is being carried out at Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital. As per the US National Institutes of Health database, there are only eight registered DBS trials for drug addiction out of which six are in China.
China has become the de facto hub for deep brain stimulation research. The first patient to undergo this procedure is Yan, who is a methamphetamine addict. He has been addicted since the birth of his son back in 2011 and has lost about $150,000 via gambling after getting high. He had a divorce, gets rare visits from his son, and has a few unsuccessful rehab procedures. This led him to agree to become an experimental deep brain stimulation test subject. Yan, while speaking of his struggle with his addiction, said, ‘My willpower is weak.’
Dr Li Dianyou drilled into Yan’s skull and added two small electrodes into a small area of the brain closer to the forebrain that is scientifically linked with addiction. After a few hours, Yan was given general anesthesia for another procedure where the surgeons implanted a battery pack into his chest. The risks associated with the procedure are high; the patient can die because of a brain hemorrhage, wake up with seizures, develop an infection, and even leave the hospital with a completely new personality.
Yan was lucky not to experience any of this and claims that he felt a rush of excitement as the battery provided power to the electrodes in his brain. Dr Li also carried out a test-run of the installed electrodes by making use of a tablet for modifying the machine and subsequently, Yan’s emotions. Yan says, ‘This machine is pretty magical. He adjusts it to make you happy, and you’re happy, to make you nervous, and you’re nervous.’ As per Yan, he has been drug-free for about six months now.
China has strict anti-drug laws in place that have forced countless addicts to receive mandatory treatment. The list of treatments also includes rehabilitation via physical labor that can span over the years. Chinese addicts might be open to deep brain stimulation because the other alternative was brain lesioning where surgeons chipped away parts of the brain’s tissue and hoped for the best.
Dr Sun Bomin, director of functional neurosurgery at Ruijin Hospital, said, ‘As doctors, we always need to think about the patients. They are human beings. You cannot say, ‘Oh, we do not have any help, any treatment for you guys.’’ Nevertheless, the scientists are still not certain about how deep brain stimulation works and where to place the electrodes exactly. Adrian Carter, head of the neuroscience and society group at Monash University in Melbourne, said, ‘It would be fantastic if there were something where we could flip a switch, but it’s probably fanciful at this stage.’
If you or a loved on is suffering from addiction seek help before its too late. Your best options is looking for trusted drug rehab centers that are as far away from home as possible. Being away from your enablers should help make the recovery process a little easier.