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Could a brain implant treat addiction?

As opioids continue to ravage the nation, doctors are wondering if addiction can be treated through innovative brain therapies. Zachary Siegel of Harper’s Magazine joins host Krys Boyd to discuss the details of deep brain stimulation, an experimental treatment for addiction. His article is called “A Hole in the Head.”

Bonus Blog: How does this brain surgery work? 

The procedure involves a tiny device that controls addictive behavior and is implanted into the brain. This device gives low-dose pulses of electricity to specific brain areas, like how a cardiac pacemaker zaps the heart. 

But deep brain stimulation is still a new idea and is, of course, not the first recommended treatment for addiction as there are less invasive options available. 

While some people could benefit from receiving this kind of brain implant, it comes with risks. There’s a possibility of hemorrhaging and even death. 

Krys talks with journalist Zachary Siegel from Harper’s Magazine about why one patient, James Fisher, chose to undergo brain surgery to treat his addiction. 

“James was a candidate because his addiction was so severe that it outweighed all of that,” Siegel explains.  “He had suffered multiple overdoses that he luckily survived. He, importantly, had tried several other kinds of treatment… None of that had sustained a lasting recovery for James.” 

So, how did James first respond to the procedure? 

As he became accustomed to the dose of electricity from the implant, which targets the part of the brain where neurotransmitters like dopamine are released, he began to feel more motivated and focused. 

“This seems pretty critical for somebody who’s struggled with addiction,” Siegel says. “When you’re inside of an addiction, it’s really hard to achieve goals. And so maybe part of what’s working here with the stimulation, at least in theory, is that it is helping someone like James improve their mood.” 

Click the play button above to listen to our full conversation with Zachary Siegel about how the surgery affected James Fisher over time. Plus, what this could mean for the future of addiction treatment. 

You can listen to Think on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all of your favorite podcast streaming platforms. You can also subscribe to our new Think newsletter to get notes from Krys, see what she’s been reading lately and check out what we have planned for upcoming episodes. 

Additional Resources: 

Experimental brain surgery may help some people overcome drug addiction 

WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute first in U.S. to use deep brain stimulation to fight opioid addiction