The Promise and Dangers of Addiction Treatment Brain Implants

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Addiction is a brain disease. If a brain implant was able to treat someone’s addiction successfully, they could go through life as normally as possible without worrying about the possibility of a relapse. It is important to know that while brain implants can show promise in a person’s addiction recovery, it can lead to dangers you cannot ignore.

Gerod Buckhalter

33-year-old former hotel worker Gerod Buckhalter abused opioids ever since he experienced a football injury in high school. He would add Xanax and benzodiazepines to his mix. Buckhalter was having difficulty with treatment programs where he would drop out and relapse the same day.

He was desperately looking for a change. When Buckhalter was approached by James Mahoney, assistant neuropsychology professor at the West Virginia School of Medicine, to participate in an experimental brain surgery to treat his addiction, he jumped at the chance.

Planning Before the Surgery

Buckhalter wanted to make sure he made the right decision by going forward with the surgery, and that this was not another impulsive decision. Impulsivity is a characteristic that comes with addiction when you do not think about the action before you commit it.

Before Buckhalter was cleared to have the operation, he went through many evaluations and consent procedures to make sure he knew the potential dangers and made a free choice to participate, since it would be the first brain implant project for addiction in the country.

Controversy of the Brain Implant Project

This operation involves implanting a device that electrically stimulates the brain directly. It has been used to treat other conditions successfully, through a treatment called deep brain stimulation (DBS), where the implant has been placed in different parts of the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson’s Disease, OCD, and depression.

According to BBC, over 200,000 people have had this operation for Parkinson’s, ultimately reducing tremors and movement disorders. The main risk of any brain surgery is that there is a 1% chance of death, stroke, bleeding in the brain, and/or infection.

Taking extreme measures to treat addiction is controversial when there are less extreme forms of treatment with no chance of death, like during the 1930’s when people would treat mental disorders for lobotomies. This extreme form of treatment would leave patients permanently disabled. For this reason, it is crucial to try other alternative options before considering a surgery like this.

What Happened During the Operation

Buckhalter had to be awake during the whole surgery to make sure the placement of the implant would not damage crucial regions. During the procedure, when he was awake, the surgical team would soothe and distract him. He was under anesthesia while the surgeons drilled into his skull and stabilized his head in a halo structure. Buckhalter said that waking up was a scary experience since he was in a lot of pain afterwards. However, it passed, and he recovered quickly.

After the Operation

After receiving the brain implant, patients still need to continue with behavioral treatment like therapy and support groups to learn other coping methods. The stimulation also has to be adjusted for each person. Too much of a stimulation can lead to a euphoric feeling, while too little will not reduce cravings. Buckhalter said he felt really good when the device was first activated.

A day later, the euphoria gradually went away and he felt the way he did when he was not suffering from addiction, anxiety, or depression. Right now, Buckhalter is working with others at the treatment center at the university online because of the pandemic. He admits that once in a while, he experiences a few cravings, but they do not last enough for him to act on them. Before, he could not think of the consequences of his actions. Now, he can.

Patient and Doctor Conflicts

There are times in which the doctor determines how good a patient’s ordinary mood should be. Sometimes, the doctor and patient disagree, like when a German OCD patient felt that his doctor should have increased the stimulation, but the doctor felt like the stimulation was too high. This caused them to compromise and settle on a level in between.

The Impact of the Brain Transplant

With this implant, doctors can study Buckhalter’s brain in a new way. They can record activity in the regions that are linked with pleasure and desire, deep in the center of the brain. This surgery can be useful in the development of drugs or other therapies less demanding than brain surgery.

Right now, researchers are in phase one of this project. If they discover that it is dangerous, they plan on stopping it. If successful, they will go onto phase two, where it will be a randomized controlled trial. This can be an option for those who have had bad luck with other well-known options to treat their addiction.

This experiment can also help with another approach, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate neurons from outside the skull. It is important that whenever you choose a risky surgery like this as a means to treat your addiction, ask yourself if you have exercised all other options.

You also need to understand the risks that come with this surgery and if you are likely to get any aftercare support if any problems should arise. While brain implants have the potential to keep your cravings under control, it is still important to use other methods of treatment, as well.

A brain implant to control addictive cravings seems like a miracle, but it can be risky. Be sure to exhaust all other options before considering an extreme treatment, and remember that a brain implant does not replace the need for therapy and other types of support. Silver Lining Recovery offers various individualized therapies, such as EMDR, CBT, DBT, meditation treatment, and faith-based treatment. Please call us today at (833) 844-4769 to learn more about the services we offer.