Research on neurological technique can help to counter drug addiction and reduce use of methadone usage.
Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai is conducting clinical trials on applying the neurological technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS) to drug addiction. The technique, which involves the insertion of electrodes into targeted areas of the brain, has long been used to treat Parkinson’s disease and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Hospital officials said DBS could counter the body’s craving for drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and methadone.
“There is a reward system in the brain triggered by our neural circuit and nucleus,” said Zhang Chencheng, a doctor at the hospital. “Drugs stimulate the system, and the neural circuit sends out signals of fleeting pleasure.”
DBS, he said, directly stimulates the nucleus and create the sensation of pleasure, but with passing time, the patient will no longer feel the pleasure and the body will cease craving drugs.
Sun Bomin, director of Ruijin Hospital’s functional neurosurgery department and leader of the trials, said that DBS has been proven safe in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“Addiction works on the brain in a similar way,” he explained. “Patients repeatedly do things they actually don’t want to do.”
Sun’s team will monitor the condition of the drug patients for at least a year before they turn the “pacemaker” off. If a patient can steer clear of drugs for at least six months after that, the trial is considered a success.
Before being accepted for treatment, patients must undergo thorough assessments that include family background and personality.
While there are precedent cases of using DBS to treat methamphetamine and heroin addiction in Europe and the U.S, Ruijin Hospital is believed to be the first in the world to use DBS to try and cure methadone addiction.
Methadone is a drug used in China and many countries around the world to replace heroin in rehabilitation programs for addicts who want to come clean. There are 13 methadone clinics in Shanghai offering the drug for free to addicts on a controlled basis. Such treatment allows authorities to keep tabs on addicts and releases addicts from the necessity of turning to crime to finance their habits.
The problem is that methadone itself is addictive and its withdrawal symptoms are more excruciating than those for heroin.
Despite some initial successes with DBS treatment, doctors at Ruijin Hospital said it’s hard to find patients. The trial project was designed for 20 patients, but after two years, only seven people have participated.
“Many just can’t make up their minds,” trial leader Sun said. “Others failed personality tests.”
Drug addicts may have grounds for some concern. The effects of DBS on the brain aren’t fully understood yet. In the US, at least two projects that tried to treat alcoholism with DBS were dropped when they couldn’t justify associated risks, according to The Associated Press.
“It would be fantastic if there were something where we could flip a switch, but it’s probably fanciful at this stage,” Adrian Carter, head of neuroscience at Monash University in Melbourne, told AP about applying DBS to drug addiction.
Last year, Sun’s team published a paper about the death of a patient from a drug overdose three months after DBS surgery. [APBN]