U.S to begin research for new addiction treatment with brain implants
This June, in a study authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), brain implants designed to shock away physical addiction to drugs and alcohol will begin their first clinical trial in the United States. The study is being led by Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute in Morgantown, under a grant received from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In the first piece of this two-part study, four participants, who have failed multiple attempts at sobriety, will be given an implant in their brain’s reward system that will fire electrical pulses to steer away the course of addiction in the brain. Known as deep brain stimulation, Rezai explains it as an in-brain pacemaker, which has already been used for more than 30 years to treat Parkinson’s disease. However, this is the first time the device will be used to treat addiction in the United States.
The trial will take more than just a team of scientists, and will involve teams of neurologists, psychologists and case workers to track each patient’s progress, as well as studying the biomarkers related to addiction in each patient’s brain. Rezai explained that he believes addiction is a brain condition, and in addiction you must deal with biology as well as our environment, making psychologists and therapy equally as important as the implants. The first part of this two-year study will mainly serve as a proof of concept and safety before they expand the research to a randomized 16-patient and controlled study in the second phase.
Deep brain stimulation will not be the first line of treatment for addiction, nor will it be a “cure all.” The implant device can cost as much as $100,000 in the United States. The implants used are a last line of defense after all other treatment has failed. Rezai does hope that the implants could someday be used more commonly and safely, similar to MAT. Researches also hope this will help us learn predictive information on how addiction works. Regarding the ethics behind the brain implants, Rezai explained that the device does not change how a person thinks, only how their biology reacts to a stimulus. Treating addiction through implants in West Virginia was publicly pushed by Govoner Jim Justice in 2016. Rezai said the trial has received continual support from Justice and West Virginia’s congressional delegation. Globally, there are eight registered deep brain stimulation clinical trials for drug addiction, according to a U.S. National Institutes of Health database, six of which are in China. More than 500,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the decade ending in 2017, adding urgency to the search for new, more effective treatments.