Addiction treatment has come a long way. It’s developed and refined itself so that experts now know what’s best for teens, what’s best for patients in women’s sober living homes, as well as the best sober help and living treatment in general.
However, for certain medical diseases – and more and more clinicians are recognizing addiction as an illness – there are some last-resort treatment methods that are currently being investigated, such as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).
DBS is a relatively simple neurosurgical procedure that has begun to be considered for treating addiction. However, on the whole, it has been used for treating Parkinson’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette’s and other illnesses.
Since the 1960’s, DBS has been used for treating chronic pain. Then, in 1987 scientists discovered that high frequency stimulation of the thalamus in the brain could be used to treat movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. In 2002, the FDA approved the method to treat Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. In 2009, the FDA also approved it for OCD. Because of the success of this form of treatment, studies continue to investigate it and how it might be used to treat other illnesses.
And this includes addiction. In 2006, German psychiatrist and researcher Jens Kuhn of the University of Cologne accidentally discovered DBS as a treatment for addiction. Kuhn used DBS on a patient with panic disorder and instead of affecting that condition, the treatment actually helped the patient cut back on his alcohol use. Apparently, DBS affects the nucleus accumbens in the brain, a region involved in addictive behavior. There are currently four clinical trials using DBS as a means for treating opiate relapse, severe alcohol addiction, severe opioid addiction, and alcoholism.
There’s no question that DBS is a last-resort form of treatment. If an individual were in and out of sober living facilities, for example, and if he or she needed to seek sober help again and again, then DBS might be considered. DBS inhibits or excites, whatever is needed, deep brain structures to alleviate abnormal patterns of neuronal firing. One doctor called DBS “a pacemaker for the brain.” Along these lines, DBS is a means to change the patterns of the brain that keep us behaving and responding to life in the same ways. Certainly, continuing to make unhealthy choices is what fuels addiction and lands us needing sober help again and again.
Another means to change the brain, however, is neuroplasticity. In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Dodge includes a metaphor originally created by neuroscientist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone. For instance, when a person learns that bingeing and purging temporarily numbs anxiety. By choosing to binge again and again in order to minimize anxiety, a well-worn path develops. Over time, it becomes very difficult to change the course of one’s thoughts and behaviors. Bingeing and purging can easily become the only choice because it appears that nothing else works. The same process is happening when your self-talk is consistently self-defeating orwhen you go into panic mode in social situations and a social phobia develops. When we make the same choice again and again, we strengthen the neurons in the brain. Neurons are involved in these mental and behavioral patterns and continue to strengthen each time the same choice is made.
Carrying out action patterns that are positive and healthy may be challenging at the start, but with practice, they too can become habitual. Finding and creating new worn-out paths (healthier ones!) is the definition of neuroplasticity.
DBS helps the process of neuroplasticity quickly and effectively. Although it is still considered a last resort sort of treatment, there are some major kinks preventing it from being a mainstream treatment method. Nonetheless, each of these advances add to the understanding of needing sober help and treatment of addiction.
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