Tag Archives: brain

Scientists Explore Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to Fight Addiction

doctors doing brain surgery

Addiction is costly in many ways. It can cost relationships, families, jobs, and lives. The stigma of addiction can cause people not to seek help, and it seems that the stigma is international, just like the disease of addiction itself.

China has been experimenting with different solutions for addiction for years. People often go to the research doctors out of desperation. A recent article by the Associated Press detailed the desperation a man named Yan, in China, felt when over the years he became addicted to crystal meth and, eventually, heroin. His father wanted to help but was tired of watching him bounce in and out of drug rehabilitation. He gave him a choice between another trip to drug rehabilitation, or to try Deep Brain Stimulation surgery. “Of course, I chose surgery,” Yan said. “With surgery, I definitely have the chance to get my life back.”

China’s Research into DBS for Addiction

China doesn’t have the same medical laws as America, and for many years they tried an archaic and painful surgery to “cure” addiction doctors call “brain lesioning”.  Desperate families paid doctors thousands of doctors to “lesion” the brain. Similar to a lobotomy, the method destroyed small clumps of brain tissue, causing a variety of neurological ailments for patients, including mental health disorders, memory problems and sexual dysfunction. Even worse, it rarely worked.

Deep brain surgery involves an implant in the brain, which electrically stimulates specific areas. In the United States, DBS has only been approved for Parkinson’s disease. Few patients, however, can afford the $100,000 DBS surgery costs.  

In China, where medical regulations are lax, clinical trials are already underway. Dr. Sun Bomin, director of Ruijin Hospital’s functional neurosurgery department, says the need outweighs concerns about side effects or efficacy. “They are human beings. You cannot say, ‘Oh, we do not have any help, any treatment for you guys.’”

Sun said he has served as a consultant for two Chinese companies that make deep brain stimulators — SceneRay Corp. and Beijing PINS Medical Co. He has tried to turn Ruijin into a center of DBS research, not just for addiction, but also Tourette syndrome, depression and anorexia.

China’s studies don’t come to any definitive conclusions. One trial had a patient that died from a heroin overdose just a few months after surgery. Another study in January by doctors at a military hospital in Xi’an found five out of eight heroin users stayed off drugs for two years after DBS surgery.

Yan, it turns out, is more of a Guinea pig than a patient. There are risks of a brain hemorrhage, changes to his personality, seizures, or an infection. There is also scant evidence that DBS will cure or treat his addiction.

DBS in the USA

The scientific community has concerns about any clinical trials done in China, outside of labs with ethical guidelines and rigor in place.

“It would be fantastic if there were something where we could flip a switch, but it’s probably fanciful at this stage,” Adrian Carter, who heads the neuroscience and society group at Monash University in Melbourne, told the Associated Press “There’s a lot of risks that go with promoting that idea.”

Few clinical trials have explored DBS outside of Parkinson’s research. U.S. clinical trials on DBS for depression were nixed due to a lack of evidence for benefits. (It is incredibly hard for scientists to ethically justify cutting into somebody’s skull without any scientific evidence it will help.) SceneRay, another Chinese company exploring DBS for addiction, was turned down for clinical research trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

However, the FDA has allowed a small, separate trial of DBS for opioid use disorder. Led by Dr. Ali Rezai, at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, it will launch in June.

Tainted Cocaine Causing Brain Damage

brain damage

A dangerous new substance that’s used as an anti-worming agent has been found in recent cocaine samples taken by Swiss researchers, according to a report by Big Think.

Cocaine is the second-most popular drug worldwide, and it’s almost always “cut” with another drug or substance so that the drug is more profitable. In some cases, medications like fentanyl are added to cocaine to make it more addictive – but it’s also more dangerous. Usually, it’s baking soda or ammonia that’s added with the simple goal of thinning out the drug content.

Now, however, two studies from the University of Zurich (UZH) discovered that levamisole, a powerful animal anti-worming agent, has been turning up in the cocaine supply. Scientists speculate that it is being used by chemists to make the effects of cocaine last longer.

It’s also possible that it’s leaving brain damage in regular cocaine users. The long-term effects are impaired cognitive performance and the thinning out the prefrontal cortex. Levamisole is also leading to changes in blood counts and blood vessels, and in animals, it has been shown to attack the nervous system.

Two Studies Show Damage From Levamisole

A team from the Psychiatric Hospital and the Institute of Forensic Medicine identified people who had ingested the levamisole-tainted cocaine through a hair drug test. The higher levamisole levels in their body, the more they exhibited impairment of cognitive functions.

A second study had users who took the drug with levamisole in it had MRI’s to view the effects of the drug on their brain. The MRI study showed that people who ingested the cocaine with a high level of levamisole had a very clear thinning of the prefrontal cortex. This finding is significant because it’s the part of the brain responsible for executive functions.

Where is the Brain Damage?

Executive function is the part of the brain that provides self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility. Most of these functions are needed when you are problem-solving, and without them, people make poor choices.

 

 

Using Science to Fight Addiction

According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 21 million Americans currently need treatment for a substance abuse disorder. Ninety percent of them will not receive treatment; many will end up incarcerated because of crimes related to their addiction.

nora volkow NIDA

Since that report was released, an increasing number of doctors and scientists are calling for more recognition of addiction as a brain disorder. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of Drug Control Policy and the leading drug authority in the government, spoke out against current perceptions of addiction in a speech delivered at the Betty Ford Center. Kerlikowske characterized addiction as a “chronic disease of the brain” rather than a moral failing on the part of the individual.

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Study Finds Brain Differences in Internet Addicts are Similar to Alcoholics

internet addictionAccording to a recent study, addiction to the Internet might cause the same changes to the brain that occur with alcoholism and cocaine addiction.

The study involved 17 Chinese teenagers who were given MRI brain scans.  The results of the study, which were published in the journal PLoS One, found that teens who were self-described Internet addicts had abnormal amounts of “white matter” surrounding the wiring between some neurons in the brain.  The teenagers with brain abnormalities admitted to being preoccupied with the Internet and to being unable to control their use of the Internet.  They also said they felt depressed, restless and irritable when they tried cut down on their use.

According to Jonathan Wallis, associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, the areas of the brain that the study pinpointed are known to be involved with compulsive behavior and addiction.  Gordon Harris, a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, said that the new research provides insight into why some people become addicted.  Instead of being due to weakness or a lack of will power, addiction may have more to do with brain chemistry.

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