(TMU) — In the fight to overcome drug addiction, many tools can be helpful. Whether it’s 12-step-programs, close family, the gym, religion or anything else, quitting an addiction can be a brutal, painstaking, and complicated process that fails more often than it succeeds.
But for one man addicted to pain medications, surrender was simply not an option—nor were the myriad of traditional means of addressing his addiction to opioids.
With his long history of drug overdoses, 33-year-old Gerod Buckhalter had only managed to remain sober for four months of his life since the age of 15, and no other inpatient/outpatient treatments or medications could treat his addiction to opioids and benzodiazepine, reports the Washington Post.
The man could easily have become a statistic—after all, in 2017, opioid addictions claimed a massive 50 deaths per 100,000 in the state of West Virginia alone, by far the highest drug-overdose-related death rate in the U.S.
So when a revolutionary new option to treat his addiction became available, Buckhalter decided to take the radical step of having a microchip implanted into his brain.
The device is known as the Deep Brain Simulation (DBS) chip, and is designed to be placed in the addiction and reward center of the brain. Once implanted, the brain pacemaker limits cravings by altering the circuitry of the central nervous system.
The DBS chip had already been used with success to treat Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, dystonia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
Now, doctors at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI) who are surgically implanting the chip hope that if it successfully helps Buckhalter and three other patients overcome their craving for drugs, it could be introduced in a wider clinical trial and eventually become a vital weapon in the fight to halt the U.S. opioid epidemic.
For Buckhalter, the chip—which is roughly the size of a pocket watch and accompanied by a battery implanted behind his collar bone—would wirelessly adjust the currents flowing through the electrodes to stimulate his brain based on his needs.
— JoJo Platt – Behind the Bench (@RockinRedSF) November 7, 2019
Principal investigator and renowned neuroscientist Dr. Ali Rezai, who is leading the trial, said in a press release:
“Our team at the RNI is working hard to find solutions to help those affected by addiction.
Addiction is a brain disease involving the reward centers in the brain, and we need to explore new technologies, such as the use of DBS, to help those severely impacted by opioid use disorder.”
His team admits that doctors and researchers are still not fully sure how the device works. However, they do believe that the reward circuit can be successfully modulated through the manipulation of dopamine to ensure “you’re getting better control, so you’re not craving dopamine as much.”
On Friday, Buckhalter underwent the seven-hour surgery before it was announced by the school on Tuesday.
Rezai stressed that this treatment should only be seen as a last line of defense for those unable to break the cycle of overdose, relapse, the inability to hold jobs, and other grave effects of addiction.
“I’m not advocating for deep brain stimulation as a first line or a second line [treatment].
It’s for people who have failed everything, because it is brain surgery.”
Dr. James Berry, interim chair of the WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry and director of Addiction Services at RNI, said:
“Despite our best efforts using current, evidence-based treatment modalities, there exist a number of patients who simply don’t respond.
Some of these patients remain at very high risk for ongoing catastrophic health problems and even death.
DBS could prove to be a valuable tool in our fight to keep people alive and well.”