Deep Brain Stimulation For Opioid Addiction: Does It Work?

Dr. Langdon M.D.

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly Langdon M.D.


Opioid addiction, also known as opioid use disorder, is a major public health issue in the United States, affecting over 1.6 million Americans across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.

To combat the U.S. opioid crisis, public health and addiction researchers have worked to identify effective treatment options for opioid use disorder and strategies for expanding treatment access.

Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine for opioid addiction, for instance, have been successfully utilized for years, alongside other behavioral health treatment services.

But with rising overdose death rates and high relapse rates, researchers are also looking to other innovative treatments for patients who have not sustainably benefitted from these treatments.

One such treatment that’s currently being studied is deep brain stimulation, also known as DBS.

What Is Deep Brain Stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a medical procedure and treatment that involves implanting electrodes into specific “reward centers” of the brain—namely, the nucleus accumbens.

Once implanted, doctors turn on the deep brain stimulation device, intended to help regulate structures of the brain that are associated with addiction, compulsive behavior, and self-control.

Deep brain stimulation has existed for years as an FDA-approved treatment for health conditions.

Deep brain stimulation has been FDA-approved as a treatment for:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • epilepsy
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • dystonia
  • essential tremor

Its use for treating severe drug addiction, however, is fairly recent and is still being studied. As a result, this type of treatment is not yet widely available for people living with drug addiction.

Who Can Benefit From Deep Brain Stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation is currently being studied as a treatment for people with opioid addiction who have proved “treatment-resistant”.

In other words, this refers to people who:

  • have previously received evidence-based treatment at multiple levels of care (inpatient, residential, outpatient)
  • have continued to suffer relapse despite receiving treatment
  • continue to experience negative consequences as a result of addiction

The truth is that opioid addiction can be a chronic condition, with relapse rates as high as 50 to 70 percent even among those who have successfully completed treatment.

While many people do benefit from evidence-based opioid addiction treatments—for others, abstaining from opioids of abuse can be an ongoing and consistently challenging struggle.

Pros Of Deep Brain Stimulation For Opioid Use Disorder

Deep brain stimulation may have certain benefits to offer people with opioid addiction who have exhausted other treatment options.

Because this treatment directly affects structures of the brain, this treatment could be capable of reducing urges to use drugs and eliminating the rewarding aspects of opioid drug effects.

What this may help to do:

  • decrease drug-seeking
  • help people sustain their abstinence from drugs of abuse
  • effectively supplement existing treatments (e.g. MAT)
  • increase treatment retention

Cons Of Deep Brain Stimulation For Opioid Use Disorder

Deep brain stimulation is still a novel treatment, especially in its use for treating addiction.

Because of this, there are still unknowns about important aspects of this medical treatment.

For instance:

  • how much it will cost
  • when it will be widely available
  • its safety for treating addiction
  • whether it can be effective as a standalone treatment
  • who may be able to benefit from this treatment
  • if it can help people with dual diagnosis
  • any long-term side effects of this treatment

What To Know About Deep Brain Stimulation For Opioid Addiction

If you recently heard about this potentially ground-breaking treatment for opioid addiction, and wish to learn more, here is what’s important for addicted individuals and loved ones to know:

Where Can I Find DBS Treatment?

Deep brain stimulation is a treatment that is still in the clinical trial phase for treating opioid addiction. It is currently being studied as a potential treatment but is not yet widely available.

At this time, the treatment is only offered on a limited basis as part of a clinical trial underway at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, which began in 2019.

This clinical trial is studying the effects of DBS on four participants, three of whom have already been chosen for this clinical trial based on selective criteria. 

Throughout the course of this trial, all effects of this treatment—including any adverse side effects among participants—will be closely documented.

Is Deep Brain Stimulation For Opioid Addiction Safe?

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved this treatment for certain health conditions (not opioid addiction), essentially establishing its safety under limited circumstances.

So far, U.S. studies have not recorded major adverse events, or major negative side effects in the limited number of people who have received this treatment for drug addiction.

However, at this time, its safety for treating opioid addiction is yet to be fully established.

Does It Work For Opioid Addiction?

Although preliminary data on the usefulness of this treatment are positive thus far, these results are preliminary—and are therefore not conclusive.

One participant of the ongoing West Virginia study, who has struggled with addiction to both opioids and benzodiazepines, told NBC News that DBS had “immediate,” night-and-day effects.

This treatment has also had promising results for treating other forms of drug addiction, according to some other human and animal studies. 

For example, deep brain stimulation has also been studied as a treatment for:

  • cocaine dependence
  • alcohol addiction
  • nicotine addiction
  • polysubstance abuse

Still, substance abuse experts caution that there is more research to be done on this type of treatment. Broader use of deep brain stimulation for opioid addiction, therefore, could still be years away.

What Other Types Of Treatment Are Available For Opioid Addiction?

While DBS is currently being studied as a potential treatment for opioid addiction, those who are living with opioid addiction do have other treatment options available.

The most effective treatment for opioid addiction at this time is medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. This combines the use of certain medications with counseling and behavioral therapy.

Medication-assisted treatment programs include:

  • methadone maintenance treatment
  • buprenorphine (Suboxone) treatment
  • naltrexone (Vivitrol) treatment

What Are The Benefits Of Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment programs can offer a number of benefits for people addicted to opioids like heroin, morphine, fentanyl, or other prescription opioids.

What this can help to do:

  • reduce drug cravings
  • help restore normalcy to a person’s life
  • promote continued participation in treatment
  • improve depression and anxiety
  • increase likelihood of finding and keeping a job
  • reduce criminal activity
  • help sustain continued abstinence from drugs of abuse

Additionally, the behavioral therapy component of MAT can also help to address a person’s addiction at the roots, and teach supportive tools for maintaining recovery.

Rehab Programs For Opioid Addiction

Treatment for opioid use disorder can be found through a doctor, outpatient addiction treatment center, or residential inpatient rehab center like Bedrock Recovery.

A full rehab program, which can offer both medical and behavioral health treatment services, for opioid addiction is ideal. This can help people heal physically, mentally, and psychologically.

At Bedrock Recovery Center, for instance, we offer a full residential rehab program for opioid addiction that begins with detoxification.

What our residential rehab programming includes:

  • medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • various behavioral therapies
  • mindfulness-based therapy
  • trauma-informed care
  • dual diagnosis treatment option
  • 12-Step program option
  • transitional care (aftercare)

At Bedrock, we know how important it is to find treatment that works for you. 

To achieve this, our treatment programs offer a personalized approach that creates a treatment plan that’s customized specifically to meet your or your loved one’s needs.

Find Treatment For Opioid Addiction Today

If you or a loved one is looking for detox or residential opioid treatment, contact our Massachusetts rehab center today to learn more about available treatment options.

  1. American Psychological Association — Evidence-Based Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder
  2. NBC News — Deep brain stimulation may ease opioid addiction when other treatments fail
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — About the Epidemic
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine — Deep brain stimulation for the treatment of drug addiction
  5. West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute — WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute first in the U.S. to use deep brain stimulation to fight opioid addiction

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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