Allegheny Health Network studies deep brain stimulation for opioid addiction

Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network is studying whether deep brain stimulation can help people overcome opioid addiction.

The pilot study will enroll three people with refractory opioid use disorder. Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes into the brain powered by a pacemaker-like device near the patient's collarbone. The object is to release natural dopamine to reduce cravings and reverse physical changes to the brain caused by chronic drug use. The method is used to treat movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

Deep brain stimulation targets the nucleus accumbens, a structure of the brain associated with drug addiction.

"Stimulating this structure with mild electrical pulses via DBS has been shown in a small case series to reduce cravings and the chance of drug relapse, and we are among a few centers in the United States further advancing the study of this treatment," said Nestor Tomycz, MD, director of stereotactic and functional neurosurgery at Allegheny Health Network, in a June 13 news release from the health system.

“Rather than cure addiction, DBS may enable us to rewire the brain to allow the individual to respond better to traditional treatments along their journey to recovery," stated Mark Fuller, MD, executive director of the Allegheny Health Network Center for Recovery Medicine. "But it’s important to underscore that DBS is not yet a proven treatment for addiction. We are in the early stages of research that will determine its efficacy."

Allegheny Health Network is also among a handful of systems studying deep brain stimulation as a potential treatment for obesity and Alzheimer's disease.

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