MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Deep Brain Stimulation treatment at West Virginia University could be the next big step in treating drug abuse disorders.

West Virginia resident James Fisher, 36, was the most recent recipient of the experimental surgery which has only been performed in the U.S two other times as part of a clinical trial being conducted at West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

During the procedure, doctors implant electrodes into nickel sizes holes that are drilled into the skull in an effort to cut drug cravings. The patient is awake for part of it.

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“I’m gettin’ holes drilled into my brain. Like, it’s scary,” said James Fisher, a recipient of the DBS procedure. When asked why he was willing to undergo the procedure, he responded, “I don’t wanna die.”

Some considered the rare clinical trial brain surgery to be a radical approach. But, like Fisher, many West Virginians see no good option when dealing with substance use issues. To qualify for the clinical trial, patients must have previously tried numerous rehabilitation efforts that failed and have overdosed multiple times.

NBC News revealed that Fisher had been using drugs since high school; he found doctors willing to write prescriptions for his social anxiety. When that stopped working, he moved on to buying from friends and, eventually, stealing from strangers to get the money to pay for drugs.

West Virginia has the highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids. In 2017, drug overdose deaths involving opioids in West Virginia occurred at a rate of 49.6 deaths per 100,000 persons, according to NIDA.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been used successfully for decades to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Doctors at the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute developed the technique for worst-case drug addiction on the theory that targeting one of the brain’s reward centers — the nucleus accumbens — with tiny sparks of electricity could quiet powerful cravings, allowing the brain regions involved in judgment and decision-making to be heard, said principal investigator Dr. Ali Rezai, executive chair of the institute in Morgantown.

Deep brain stimulation may ease opioid addiction when other treatments fail, NCB News, One Nation Overdose

Gerod Buckhalter was the most recent recipient of the treatment before Fisher. He received the DBS in 2019 and has lived over two years without a relapse. Washington Post called Buckhalter’s procedure “outlandishly successful,” and this success story leaves Fisher with hope that his results could be just as life-changing.

However, according to experts, the results are not a guaranteed cure. Of the three initial patients, one relapsed and is no longer part of the clinical trial. NCB New’s One Nation Overdosed story said, “broader use is still years away.”

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