We have talked about the use of virtual reality (VR) to treat addiction and suggested that the method may backfire if the root of the problem is not tackled. In the worst-case scenario, patients may develop a reliance on VR and the approach may turn into fighting fire with fire. 

Recently, a methamphetamine-addict from China was treated with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). It involves implanting a pacemaker-like device into the brain of the addict and the surgery was conducted by Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital. Unlike artificial intelligence (AI), DBS is still an experimental and debatable technology because of its invasive nature. The implanted device will send electrical impulses, stimulating targeted areas within the brain that believe will alleviate the symptoms of an individual. 

The procedure itself is risky and its exact effects on patients are not thoroughly understood. Nevertheless, DBS is most commonly employed on Parkinson’s disease patients in which traditional medication is no longer effective for them. Recently, there have also been studies claiming the positive impact of DBS on patients with depression and Alzheimer.

The risks and the failures 

Animal DBS studies may have yielded some preliminary success as a therapy on drug abuse, but the medical community remains skeptical. Mainly because of its inherent risks to cause seizures, infections, a change in personality, or brain hemorrhage. After all, brain implants should not draw equivalent to a switch whereby patients will generally get better when it is being turn on. The failure of previous DBS clinical trials on depressive patients had also put a halt to the overall development. 

Nevertheless, China has regards DBS as a salvage from brain lesioning. Earlier, some drug addicts will resort to removal of brain tissues to treat their condition. These surgeries are often unverified and come with side-effects such as memory loss and development of mood disorders. China has put a stop to these surgeries in 2004. 

Any clinical trial involving human participants is often a complicated procedure in the US and Europe because of all the ethical, social and scientific concerns that need to be addressed. The struggle is then extended to the recruitment of patients or keeping them in the study throughout the clinical trial period. The costs of having a DBS device implanted in patients can cost up to $100,000 in the US, this is another factor which deters researchers from diving into the area. 

China as the emerging research hub for DBS 

China takes a pro-active stand in treating addiction. Addicts may be forced into compulsory treatment and rehabilitation under the country’s anti-drug laws. Coupled with the relatively large patient population, readiness of the local government to provide funding and ambitious MedTech companies seeking for opportunities for their ventures, most DBS research has set their eyes on China. 

According to the US National Institutes of Health database, presently there are eight registered drug addiction related DBS clinical trials taking place in the World and six of them are being conducted in China. Thus far, China has offered a mixed of study results; with some individuals suffering a relapse three months DBS implant while others showed to have stayed off the drugs for as long as two years. 

Author Bio
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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.