Brain implant being tested for drug addiction

SHANGHAI, China (WPVI) -- China is reporting mixed success with an experimental - and controversial - treatment for drug addicts.

Doctors in Shanghai are using deep brain stimulation, or DBS, pacemaker-like devices that send electrical impulses to the brain, in hopes of turning off drug cravings.

One patient who received the implant later died of a drug overdose, but 5 others are reportedly still off drugs.

DBS has long been used for epilepsy and Parkinson's disease.

Experts here who have studied DBS don't think it will be a panacea for addiction.

"I do think that when used in combination with things like cognitive behavioral therapy, other classical treatments for addiction, that it can help patients," says Dr. Meghan Creed, of Washington University in St. Louis.

She adds, "Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, has been used for an increasing number of neurological and psychiatric disorders and I think given the crisis that we have with addiction right now, that the prospect of using DBS for addiction is important and very timely."

"It can help them overcome some of that initial craving," she notes.

China has a long, if troubled, history of brain surgery on drug addicts.

Even today, China's punitive anti-drug laws can force addicts into years of compulsory treatment, including "rehabilitation" through labor.

The experimental surgery is now coming to the US.

In February, the US Food and Drug Administration greenlighted a clinical trial in West Virginia of DBS for opioid addicts.

Some critics believe this surgery should not be allowed.

They argue that such human experiments are premature, and will not address the complex biological, social and psychological factors that drive addiction.

Scientists don't fully understand how DBS works and there is still debate about where electrodes should be placed to treat addiction.

Scientists in Europe have struggled to recruit patients for their DBS addiction studies, and complex ethical, social and scientific questions have made it hard to push forward with this kind of work in the United States, where the devices can cost $100,000 to implant.
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