In China, a deep brain stimulation implant is being used to treat addiction

Deep brain stimulation is a procedure in which a pacemaker-like “neurostimulator” is used to zap specific regions of the brain. While it’s not yet fully understood, early research indicates that it could be useful for treating a range of neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and depression.

Now researchers in China have taken the next step by implanting a deep brain stimulation device into a person’s brain to treat their addiction to methamphetamine. The operation, which was carried out at Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital, is among the first of its kind to have taken place for this purpose. Attempts are also being made to use it to combat opioid addiction.

According to the Associated Press, “[w]hile Western attempts to push forward with human trials of DBS for addiction have foundered, China is emerging as a hub for this research.” Part of the challenge involves struggles to recruit patients for DBS addiction studies in the West. In China, which has a long (and controversial) history of brain surgery for drug addiction, the government and medical device makers are much happier to pay for this research to be carried out.

Speaking to the AP, the patient described the procedure by saying that, “This machine is pretty magical. [The doctor] adjusts it to make you happy and you’re happy, to make you nervous and you’re nervous. It controls your happiness, anger, grief, and joy.” The article notes that the procedure was carried out in October, and the patient has not suffered a drug-related relapse since then.

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered experimental work for battling addiction. Recently, researchers from the University of Chicago used the CRISPR gene-editing platform to modify the DNA of skin cells in mice in order to make them resistant to cocaine addiction. However, this research has yet to be developed close to the point at which human trials may be on the table as a possibility.

Ultimately, scientific developments such as these are exciting because of what they suggest about future, life-enhancing possibilities. But there is a minefield of complex ethical issues involved. Until comprehensive studies can be carried out showing that this type of work is safe and beneficial, we hope that all involved will proceed with extreme caution. Because rushing ahead just to claim that you’re first is absolutely the wrong approach to medicine.

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