Realizing you have a substance abuse problem is scary. Making the decision to get help is scary. But that distress is generally extinguished by the idea of being happy, functional, and healthy in recovery — until those ideas never become realities.
Many people who seek treatment for substance abuse do find long-term sobriety. But many people don’t.
The relapse rate for people who seek substance abuse treatment is somewhere between 40 and 60%.
Enter: brain implants. Doctors are starting to use human brain implants to help addicts who cannot maintain sobriety.
How Addiction-Fighting Brain Implants Work
It’s like a pacemaker for the brain.
The brain implants utilize deep brain stimulation to fight addiction by reducing cravings. While it may sound otherworldly, deep brain stimulation has actually been approved by the FDA to treat a variety of other conditions. About 180,000 people around the world have brain implants for conditions like Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
So, what’s actually involved in the procedure?
The procedure starts with a series of brain scans and is followed by surgery. During the surgery, the medical team makes a small hole, about the size of a nickel, in the skull and inserts electrodes into the nucleus accumbens. This is the part of the brain that responds strongly to opioids. The electrodes run from the brain to a battery and stimulator implanted behind the patient’s collarbone.
Doctors can then send a pulsed current through the electrodes to regulate the imbalance in the patient’s reward circuitry. They believe the current can reduce opioid cravings and potentially prevent the addiction from worsening. The doctors can adjust the current using wireless technology to either provide more or less stimulation, depending on the patient’s needs.
Case Study: Gerod Buckhalter
Gerod Buckhalter is the first to receive the addiction-fighting brain implant. He’s 33 years old and has struggled with substance abuse and opioid addiction for more than ten years. His struggle has included multiple relapses and overdoses. He revealed he has not been able to maintain sobriety for more than four months since he was 15 years old.
Buckhalter received the surgery on November 1st this year. Three others are also receiving the surgery as part of the pilot program.
While brain implants are currently being used to treat other medical conditions, this is the first time the method has been approved for drug addiction. The complex trial includes doctors, ethicists, psychologists, and regulators. Gerod Buckhalter and the other three patients with brain implants will be monitored very closely for the next two years.
The pilot program aims to prove that the method is safe so that a full-scale clinical trial can move forward.
Caution: Brain Surgery is Not Trivial
Dr. Ali Rezai, whose surgical team performed Gerod Buckhalter’s surgery, makes it clear that this procedure should be a last resort. It’s for a very specific population of people struggling with opioid addiction who have failed every other form of treatment.
These brain implants are implemented through surgery. Any type of surgery comes with risks and complications. The risks are heightened for something as serious and complex as brain surgery.
Ethicists also warn about the dangers of merging humans and machines. Tech firms, like Neuralink and Facebook, are currently attempting to advance development of specific brain implants for commercial use. However, Dr. Rezai makes it clear that the brain implants in his trail are not for augmenting humans nor are they a consumer technology. The procedure is for people with a chronic disease who have lost all other hope for treatment.