News ID: 253034
Published: 1040 GMT May 19, 2019

Brain implants could help solve opioid epidemic, British scientists say

Brain implants could help solve opioid epidemic, British scientists say

The British government should begin brain implant trials on drug addicts to help solve Britain's opioid epidemic, scientists said.

The trials would involve implanting a device to act as a kind of pacemaker, electrically stimulating areas associated with addiction, reported.

The technique, deep brain stimulation (DBS), already exists, helping people with Parkinson's disease to help control tremors.

But scientists want to explore if it could be used to ‘switch off’ people's addictions to heroin, opioids, alcohol or methamphetamine. The technology could also help treat chronic pain that can trigger overuse of prescription drugs.

Dr. Valerie Voon, a neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, said the UK should join countries such as China that offer clinical trials of DBS to treat drug addiction.

"There is an expense but I think it is worth it,” she said.

"It is important to run and fund these studies in the UK to determine the efficacy."

China launched the first clinical trial of DBS for methamphetamine addiction at Shanghai's Ruijin Hospital in October last year. Western attempts for human trials have so far floundered.

Tipu Aziz, professor of neurosurgery at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Sciences, said the technology could help solve problems created by the removal of NHS funding for pain relief.

"These patients have had to resort to stronger and stronger painkillers," he said.

"We have repeatedly called for trials because without a recourse for pain relief, opioid consumption is going to go up. It's better to target the root cause of the opioid intake."

Voon is currently advising on a further trial of DBS in China, while Aziz is advising on clinical trials in Ireland and France.

The call for trials in the UK comes after a warning from Matt Hancock, UK’s  health secretary, who last month launched a government crackdown on opioid painkillers after prescriptions soared by more than 60 percent, from 14 million in 2008 to 23 million last year.

However, there remain concerns over the safety of brain implants, with surgeons finding they could change the behavior and personality of some patients.

Laura Cabrera, a scientist at Michigan State University, feared the technology could be used irresponsibly if it became more widespread in treatments for other conditions.

"It used to be a last-resort treatment. Now they want to move it earlier in the treatment process for Parkinson's," she said.

"We don't know exactly what the circuits altering the technology do. For me, it's important that it is done in a responsible way."

A spokesman for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) said, "We have a variety of existing funding programs covering a broad range of topics and we welcome high quality submissions into any aspect of NIHR research, including deep brain stimulation."





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