Brain Implant Technology may “Hold Key” to Addiction


The technology to help people living with addiction move into recovery with the help of a brain implant is still within the realm of science fiction. But the results of a new study suggest the possibility of controlling the impulsive behaviors that are a symptom of addiction, as was done in mice by delivering an electric impulse to a distinct part of the brain.


Dr. Casey Halpern, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University Medical Center, is the senior author of the paper. It was published in the December 18, 2017, journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (online). His study’s findings provide hope that an effective treatment will be found for severe addictions and depression, as well as compulsive gambling and binge eating.


Researchers Observed Brain Changes in Mice


Dr. Halpern and his team of researchers observed a specific pattern in the brain of laboratory mice immediately before they received a food reward. The mice in the experiment had previously learned to eat large amounts of fatty food. The change in brain activity occurred seconds before the mice started gorging on the food. This “anticipatory electrical signature” was a sign the compulsive behavior was about to start.


As Dr. Halpern explains, in the time leading up to a reward-based behavior, there is a sense that a payoff is about to happen. He likened it to a craving.


The researchers used electrodes implanted in the mice’s brains to send a 10-second electrical pulse to their nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is a center for pleasure and reward. They found that stimulating this part of the brain successfully reduced the mice’s overeating.


Similar Pattern Revealed in Human Brain


To test their discovery on humans, the research team worked with a man who had already been fitted with a brain implant to treat a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They observed a similar electrical signature in his brain. This result suggests that humans may respond in the same manner by having their nucleus accumbens stimulated.


Brain stimulation is currently being used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Whether or not a form of brain stimulation could serve as a viable and safe treatment for addiction remains to be seen. But knowing more about how the brain’s functioning relates to compulsive behaviors certainly opens the door for further research and hopefully, advancement in the field of treating addiction.