How Deep Brain Stimulation Is Treating 

How Deep Brain Stimulation Is Treating 

Table of Contents

Opioid Addiction

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has a long history behind it. Still, the most widely known developments of the procedure can be attributed to Alim Benabid, who discovered that electrical stimulation of the basal ganglia improved symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1980s (The Lancet, 2018). Since then, DBS is used in the treatment of several disorders and their symptoms, ranging from Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, scientists are looking into how DBS can be used in treating cases of severe addiction. More specifically, two potential deep brain stimulation trials for addiction are currently in the making, and the results look promising. 

What is Deep Brain Stimulation?

According to the Mayo Clinic, DBS involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of the brain to produce electrical impulses that can regulate issues from abnormal movements and impulses to activating chemicals within the brain. The amount of stimulation in DBS is usually controlled by a device placed under the skin in the upper chest, and a wire connects the device to the electrodes in the brain. But make no mistake; this is brain surgery as the procedure involves creating small holes in the skull to implant the electrodes. 

Typically, this treatment is reserved for patients who are unable to get control of their symptoms with medications or standard care options (Mayo Clinic). Below we take a closer look into two research programs using DBS to treat addiction and new technologies taking the procedure into the future.

DBS and Wireless Technology

According to Gerod Buckhalter, he has been unable to remain sober for more than four months since the age of 15 despite trying several medications, detoxes, and other inpatient or outpatient addiction treatments. Buckhalter is one of four patients, under the care of Ali Rezai, executive chairman of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, to be part of the first pilot program in the U.S. aimed at a small percentage of those suffering from opioid abuse disorder with the most treatment-resistant cravings for the drug (Washington Post, 2019). 

What the procedure involves:

  • Opening a hole in the patient’s skull about the size of a nickel.
  • Four wires being inserted into the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward system that responds strongly to opioids. 
  • The wires from the brain are then connected to a stimulator (similar to a pacemaker) and a battery, implanted behind Buckhalter’s collar bone. 
  • Using wireless technology, doctors can adjust the current going through the electrodes to provide different levels of stimulation to the nucleus accumbens, depending on the patient’s needs.


Doctors hope that the seven-hour procedure can regulate an imbalance in Buckhalter’s reward circuitry. Rezai explains, “By modulating the reward circuit, which relies on a chemical messenger called dopamine, you’re getting better control, so you’re not craving dopamine as much (Washington Post).” Patients who underwent the procedure in China stated that the surgery had potential and that patients were no longer consumed by the need to take drugs. The outcomes of the U.S. pilot program are still under review.

An Over-The-Ear Wearable

This new DBS treatment involves a noninvasive wearable that delivers mild electrical stimulation to cranial nerve branches to help relieve the painful symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Carlos Tirado, MD, an addiction medicine specialist, is hoping to get the wearable called the “Phoenix” FDA approval to give physicians and treatment facilities an alternative for helping patients during withdrawal. Spark Biomedical is working in conjunction with Tirado’s integrated behavioral health organization on a clinical trial to test the wearables efficacy.

What the trial involves:

  • Participants wear the device during opioid withdrawals and are not allowed to use other substances of abuse during the study.
  • Electrical stimulation is thought to restore autonomic balance (breaking down the “fight or flight” response) while also increasing the production of endorphins that can fill the channels that opioids have occupied. 


The trial hopes to demonstrate how the use of the wearable can reduce Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale (COWS) scores within the first hour. The study will include COWS score after five days, as well as measures of anxiety and other symptoms (Addiction Professional, 2019). If the device is approved for use in the treatment of adults with opioid use disorder, it will be marketed to treatment facilities and healthcare professionals and not to the public. However,  patients would be able to use it at home.

A New Frontier

Whether or not these U.S. procedures and products prove to be successful remains to be seen. However, the fact that the scientific community and biotech companies are working to advance addiction treatment research and recovery tools is a bright light in a challenging landscape. If you or someone you love is addicted to opioids, contact us today. No matter how long someone has had an opioid use disorder, it is essential to seek professional help when attempting to stop these drugs as withdrawal can be extremely difficult and sometimes even dangerous. We have formed a highly skilled treatment team with more than 30 years of experience in the field of substance abuse and mental health to deliver exceptional outpatient programs, as well as a range of other post-rehab services, to help our clients get back to the healthy, full lives they deserve. Contact Silver Lining today at 1-833-8GROWTH. Don’t let the past steal your present.