New study involving deep brain stimulation introduced locally to treat substance abuse

PITTSBURGH — The opioid epidemic continues to be a critical public health issue.

“Even what people think they are taking is not what they are getting. Things are laced and stronger,” said Dr. Nestor Tomycz, who’s a neurosurgeon at Allegheny General Hospital.

The latest data from Allegheny County shows an increase in overdose deaths by 44% in 2020 compared to the year before.

“Our current treatments are effective for many but not all. Many of us know someone who has taken current treatments and done well but there are some folks who aren’t doing well and are still dying and suffering,” said Dr. Mark Fuller with Allegheny Health Network’s Center for Recovery Medicine.

That’s where a new pilot study involving deep brain stimulation to treat substance abuse at AHN comes into play.

“We do it every week to treat Parkinson’s disease and different tremor and movement disorders. It’s become standard of care for other neurologic diseases,” Tomycz said.

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Tomycz said this type of treatment goes back 20 years. The only difference for addition is the part of the brain that the surgeons will target is associated with cravings and rewards.

“We are going to place an electrode into the nucleus accumbens which is a small area of the brain that gets altered when people take drugs of abuse like opioids and part of the problem with addiction is you can get relapse even after many years because the cravings can be so severe,” Tomycz said.

That’s where this stimulator that will go into the chest, will be programmed like a pacemaker to stop those cravings. The trial therapy is looking to start with three people suffering from substance abuse, who have had multiple relapses.

“We are really trying to find a therapy for them that can keep them from relapsing. The sad thing is that people that are doing everything right taking their meds going to support group can die if they relapse once because opioids have gotten so powerful. If the DBS can stop the cravings we may be really able to affect human lives here,” Tomycz said.

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This type of treatment was successful in other countries and there are several other pilot studies going on like this one across the country.

Those interested in learning more about AHN’s study of DBS for opioid use disorder can call the study coordinator Miranda Nadeo at (412) 359-4604 or email miranda.nadeo@ahn.org. Prospective candidates will be evaluated by Fuller.