Opioid crisis in the United States: the revolutionary "pacemaker for the brain" to combat drug addiction

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Gerod Buckhalter radiography

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West Virginia University Hospital

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This x-ray shows how a brain implant is inserted.

In the United States, opioid addiction is a serious problem. But a university hospital is testing a revolutionary treatment that works with brain implants.

It is the first test of this type that is carried out in the North American country. The idea is that this technology helps patients with severe addiction reduce their anxiety.

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Gerod Buckhalter, 33, is one of them. He has been suffering from relapses and overdoses for more than a decade, and has already undergone surgery to receive the implant.

The main doctor in charge of her, Ali Rezai, described the device as a "pacemaker for the brain".

But he added that it is not a consumer product technology and should not be used to "improve humans."

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West Virginia University Hospital

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Dr. Ali Rezai and his team carried out the procedure earlier this month.

Buckhalter was operated on November 1 at the University of West Virginia Medical Hospital (WVU).

Three other patients underwent the operation voluntarily.

Regulating the impulses

The process begins with a series of brain scanners.

Then the surgery is performed. For this a small hole is made in the skull to insert a 1 mm electrode in a specific area of ​​the brain that regulates impulses like addiction and self-control.

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A battery is inserted under the clavicle, so that brain activity is monitored remotely by the team of doctors, physiologists and addiction experts to see if the desire to consume the substance decreases.

The so-called deep brain stimulation (DBS, by its acronym in English) was approved by the FDA, the US government agency responsible for the regulation of food and medicine, for the treatment of various diseases.

Some of them are Parkinson's, epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder.

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West Virginia University Hospital

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Gerod Buckhalter has been fighting opioid addiction for years, which he was prescribed for an injury he suffered while playing soccer at age 18.

Some 180,000 people worldwide have brain implants.

This is the first time that DBS gives its approval to use them to combat drug addiction. It has happened in a complex essay in which many teams have collaborated, including ethics, psychological and regulatory specialists.

During the next two years, patients will be monitored very closely.

Dr. Rezai told the BBC that "addiction is complex " because "there are a number of social dynamics at play and genetic elements, and some people do not have access to treatments, so their brains change little by little and have more appetite."

"This treatment is for those who failed any other, be it medicine, behavior therapy, social interventions. It is a very rigorous essay supervised by ethics specialists and regulators and many other government bodies, "he added.

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West Virginia University Hospital

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Buckhalter with his family before the operation.

The doctor also says that statistics show that overdose is the leading cause of death in the United States in people under 50.

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"More than half of the patients relapse. We need to find solutions. because this is a situation that threatens his life and affects his family and loved ones. "

A crisis

The state of West Virginia, in the eastern United States, has the highest rate of opioid drug overdose deaths in the country.

In 2017, there were 49.6 deaths of this type per 100,000 people, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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Getty Images

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The abuse of pills caused a large increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2017.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom warned about the ethical dangers of combining machines and humans, and was especially concerned about the plans of technology firms such as Facebook or Neuralink, of Elon Musk, who announced that they would investigate the Commercial product development.

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Neuralink has already begun doing human trials in the United States with electrodes inserted in the brains of patients with paralysis.

And Facebook is supporting research that aims to create a helmet that can transcribe 100 words per minute, simply from thought.

Rezai is skeptical about the technology firms that are getting involved in this area.

"I think it is very good for science, and we need more science to advance in this field and learn more about the brain. It is not to improve humans, that is very important. This is not a consumer technology."

"Applications should be very regulated. This is not like getting a flu shot or getting a tattoo. The surgery has inherent risks".

"It is only for people with chronic diseases who have failed all other treatments and are desperate."

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