A Man in China Had Electrodes Implanted in His Brain to Treat His Meth Addiction. How Could It Work?

Dr. Li Dianyou, of Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai, China, uses a computer tablet to adjust the settings of a deep brain stimulation device implanted in the brain of a patient who underwent the procedure to treat his methamphetamine addiction.
Dr. Li Dianyou, of Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai, China, uses a computer tablet to adjust the settings of a deep brain stimulation device implanted in the brain of a patient who underwent the procedure to treat his methamphetamine addiction.
(Image: © Erika Kinetz/AP/Shutterstock)

A man in China who spent years battling a methamphetamine addiction has had a device inserted into his brain to treat his addiction, according to news reports.

The man is a participant in one of the world's first clinical trials to use deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat drug addiction, according to The Independent. More than six months following the surgical procedure at Shanghai's Ruijin Hospital, he remains drug-free.

But what is DBS, and why are some researchers turning to it in attempts to treat addiction? [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

DBS involves surgically implanting a pacemaker-like device into a specific area of the brain, said Dr. Ashesh Mehta, director of epilepsy surgery at Northwell Health's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center in Great Neck, New York. An electrical current passes through the device, delivering tiny electrical shocks to the targeted area.

In theory, "in patients with drug addiction, the electrical current targets the area of the brain that controls cravings, thereby reducing the need for drugs," said Mehta, who was not involved with the Chinese man's case. This area of the brain is called the nucleus accumbens.

DBS has been approved in the U.S. to treat neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson's disease; however, using it to treat drug addiction has been somewhat controversial. Although animal studies have shown promising results, critics of DBS treatment for drug addiction are reluctant to advocate its use with human subjects, according to The Independent. They argue that the treatment does not address the interplay of biological, social and psychological factors that make up addictive behavior.

Still, the approach has gotten the attention of experts in the U.S. who are desperately seeking new and effective treatments for addiction after others have failed. More than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including those from illicit drugs and prescription opioids — a twofold increase since 2007, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In an effort to reduce deaths due to drug addiction, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has sanctioned a DBS trial for opioid addiction at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, The Independent reported. The trial, led by Dr. Ali Rezai, the institute's director, is slated to begin as early as June.

Globally, there are eight registered DBS clinical trials for drug addiction, according to clinicaltrials.gov, a database from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Six are located in China, one is in France and one is in Germany.

In light of the growing drug epidemic in the U.S., Mehta concurred that researchers need to explore new treatment methods for addiction. DBS, however, is just a part of a comprehensive treatment plan, he said. "As with epilepsy, DBS is one component of treatment for drug addiction," Mehta told Live Science, adding that it is a surgical complement to both medical and behavioral therapies.

As with any surgery, there are risks, and DBS is no exception, he added. "The primary risks are bleeding, infection and stroke," Mehta said, "but the overall risk is lower in a young person in otherwise good health."

Originally published on Live Science.