Jun 24, 2019 | Updated: 08:43 AM EDT

In a World-First, Brain Implants To Treat Addiction Being Done in China

May 31, 2019 08:37 AM EDT

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The world's first clinical trial of deep brain stimulation (DBS) for drug addicts began in China and will be conducted at Shanghai's Ruijin Hospital. This very invasive procedure involves the drilling of two holes into a patient's skull and placing electrodes into their brain which can then be electronically stimulated. The procedure has been used for other disorders such as in patients with Parkinson's disease but this will be the first time in history for DBS being used in the hopes of extinguishing addiction.

The study itself maybe groundbreaking but several find ethical concerns surrounding the procedure. Europe's scientific community, albeit willing, is having a hard time finding agreeable patients, whilst in the United States, the majority doesn't deem it as socially acceptable. These concerns are indeed valid and understandable given that a patient could die of a brain hemorrhage, emerge with seizures, garner an infection, or leave the hospital with an entirely new personality. However, albeit all these, China dove head-first into DBS and pushed forward with their first ever patient - a methamphetamine addict only known as Yan.

When interviewed, he stated that he agreed to become an experimental DBS test subject since his "willpower is weak". His struggle with addiction is evident with his divorce, rare visits with his son, and unsuccessful rehab attempts.

Yan underwent two surgical procedures. The first was for a team of neurosurgeons, led by Dr. Li Dianyou, at Ruijin Hospital drill into his skull and feed two small electrodes into a small area near his forebrain scientifically tied to addiction. The second procedure, which was done a few hours after, was for surgeons to implant a battery pack into his chest.

The machine is remotely operated and could control the patient's emotions. "This machine is pretty magical," said Yan. "He adjusts it to make you happy and you're happy, to make you nervous and you're nervous." To date, Yan states he's been drug-free for six months.

In the US, with its incessantly growing opioid problem, the aversion to the risks posed by DBS has decreased outweighed by its potential benefits. Last February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an official clinical trial in West Virginia the permission to experiment with DBS on opioid addicts.

There are still several grey areas and uncertainties concerning DBS, in fact how it works exactly is still unknown and several are calling to ban it stating that it is extremely premature and would not fix the varied social, psychological, and biological reasons addiction even appears from.

"It would be fantastic if there were something where we could flip a switch, but it's probably fanciful at this stage," said Adrian Carter, head of the neuroscience and society group at Monash University in Melbourne.

Patient Yan however disagrees and claimed that his quality of life is better with DBS.

With the West Virginia trial to begin in June, we should find out soon enough whether such claims are indeed true.

 

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