As the opiate epidemic continues to claim lives all across the country, scientists are scrambling to find solutions. While medications such as naltrexone and bupropion are certainly a huge step forward, and can be incredibly helpful in weaning an addict off of heroin or other opiate (and minimizing the uncomfortable side effects), they are problematic in themselves. Finding non-pharmaceutical and non-narcotic treatment options for recovering addicts is a major focus in much of the drug abuse research that is being conducted in universities, research facilities, and government agencies all over the country.

The Scripps Institute Releases Promising Research

In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers at the Scripps Institute found that deep brain stimulation (DBS) significantly reduced compulsion to use heroin in a rat model of addiction. Normally in the standard rat model of addiction, a time lapse after use (such as that experienced by humans in inpatient addiction treatment) is typically followed by a rapid escalation in intake when the drug is made available again. This model is particularly relevant when it comes to the possibility of relapse. But in this study, rats that received DBS kept their intake at low levels even after a two-week abstinence period. The researchers found that by stopping and starting DBS, they could see the rats escalating and then de-escalating drug intake, as if a switch was being flipped. The study not only showed reduced heroin intake after DBS, but also reduced motivation for the drug, indicating a reduction in its rewarding value.

DBS involves sending weak electrical signals to specific portions of the brain; in this case, the subthalamic nucleus. This brain region is still under study to determine its full function, but it seems to modulate several functions, including movement disorders such as Parkinsons, as well as compulsive behaviors. In this study, rats that were already addicted to heroin (that would normally continue to self-administer more and more of the drug as time went on), stopped increasing their drug intake when DBS was employed to this brain region. DBS in this region is already being studied or has been approved for use in treating both Parkinson’s and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Some research has also shown promise for this technique in reducing cocaine-seeking behavior. While preclinical research is obviously a far cry from clinical trials in humans, this study does highlight a promising new possibility for a non-drug way to treat heroin addiction and improve addicts’ chance at successful recovery. It is also encouraging that research is being done that focuses on alternatives to “medical maintenance,” and that there may soon be ways to help addicts stay sober.

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