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Will putting microchips in drug addicts’ brains help them?

Drug addicts should have microchips implanted into their brains to help them beat addiction, say senior scientists

  • The treatment – deep brain stimulation (DBS) – has long been used for movement disorders like Parkinson’s, where it helps people control tremors
  • In DBS surgery, a device that acts like a pacemaker, is implanted in the brain, electrically stimulating targeted areas
  • Scientists want to see whether it can be applied to ‘switch off’ people addicted to opioids, heroin, alcohol or methamphetamine

The Government should tackle Britain’s opioid epidemic by starting trials which involve implanting microchips in drug addicts’ brains, say scientists.

The treatment – known as deep brain stimulation (DBS) – has long been used for movement disorders like Parkinson’s, where it helps people control tremors. 

In DBS surgery, a device that acts as a kind of pacemaker, is implanted in the brain, electrically stimulating targeted areas. 

And now, senior scientists want to see whether it can be applied to ‘switch off’ people addicted to opioids, heroin, alcohol or methamphetamine.

The Government should tackle Britain’s opioid epidemic (file image) by starting trials which involve implanting microchips in drug addicts’ brains, say scientists.  The treatment – known as deep brain stimulation (DBS) – has long been used for movement disorders like Parkinson’s, where it helps people control tremors

Dr Valerie Voon (pictured), a neuroscientist at Cambridge university, said the UK should join countries such as China that offer the clinical trials of DBS

While Western attempts to push forward with human trials of DBS for addiction have foundered, China is emerging as a hub for this research. 

In fact, the first clinical trial of DBS for methamphetamine addiction is currently being conducted in Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital, along with parallel trials for opioid addiction. 

WHAT IS DEEP BRAIN STIMULATION?

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) helps to control movement problems and is the main type of surgery used to treat Parkinson’s.

It involves implanting very fine wires with electrodes at their tips into the brain.

These are connected to extensions under the skin behind the ear and down the neck, which then connect to a pulse generator.

When the device is turned on, electrodes deliver high-frequency stimulation to the targeted area, which changes signals in the brain that cause Parkinson’s symptoms.

The brain is not destroyed in the process.

DBS is usually reversible.

It does not stop Parkinson’s progressing and is not a cure. 

Source: Parkinson’s UK 

However, scientists in Europe have struggled to recruit patients for their DBS addiction studies. A number of surgeons are concerned that brain implants could alter the behaviour and personality of some patients.

Complex ethical, social and scientific questions have made it hard to push forward with this kind of work in the United States, where the devices can cost $100,000 (£78,000) to implant. 

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

‘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,’ she told the Sunday Telegraph.   

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

‘We have repeatedly called for trials because without a recourse for pain relief, opioid consumption is going to go up,’ he said.

Dr Voon is currently advising on a further trial of DBS in China – and Prof Aziz is advising on clinical trials in Ireland and France. 

Opioid painkillers to carry addiction warning, announces Health Secretary 

Last month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that packaging on common medications such as morphine or fentanyl will now have to carry a warning informing patients about the risk of addiction.

Dependence on the drug can have devastating consequences for the user.

Prescriptions for opioid painkillers soared by more than 60 per cent, from 14 million in 2008 to 23 million last year. 

Mr Hancock said: ‘I have been incredibly concerned by the recent increase in people addicted to opioid drugs.

‘Painkillers were a major breakthrough in modern medicine and are hugely important to help people manage pain alongside their busy lives – but they must be treated with caution.

Last month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) announced that packaging on common medications such as morphine or fentanyl will now have to carry a warning informing patients about the risk of addiction

‘We know that too much of any painkiller can damage your health, and some opioids are highly addictive and can ruin lives like an illegal drug.

‘Things are not as bad here as in America, but we must act now to protect people from the darker side to painkillers.

‘We need to place a greater focus on making sure that these medicines are used appropriately and for pain management alone, and make sure people are fully aware of the risks.’

The wording of the warning must be based on guidance from the Commission on Human Medicines’ opioid expert working group and will be enforced by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: ‘We know that long-term use of painkillers can lead to life-altering and sometimes fatal addictions – so I am delighted to see measures put in place to raise awareness of the risks of codeine and prescribed drugs.

‘It is vital that anyone who is prescribed strong painkillers takes them only as long as they are suffering from serious pain.

‘As soon as the pain starts to alleviate, the drugs have done their job, and it is important to switch to over-the-counter medication like paracetamol which do not carry the same risk of addiction that comes with long-term use.’

A specific deadline for the introduction of the warning has not yet been set but the regulator thinks a review could be concluded within the year.   

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