Implants helping battle booze cravings

Dirk De Ridder displays the implant (right) and external activation device used to change brain activity in alcoholics.
Dirk De Ridder displays the implant (right) and external activation device used to change brain activity in alcoholics.

Four alcoholic patients fitted with brain microchips as part of groundbreaking New Zealand research into addiction have seen their cravings for alcohol dramatically reduce.

The study, led by the University of Otago's Professor Dirk De Ridder, is the first in the world to use implants to target cravings processes in the brain to combat alcoholism and, if successful, could result in a new form of intervention.

The study involves alcoholics volunteering to have an implant surgically inserted into the craving section of the brain, which controls addictions. It is hoped the research could also lead to control of things such as obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as addictions such as pornography.

De Ridder, a neurosurgeon at Dunedin Hospital who also heads the country's first academic neurosurgery unit, said microchips had now been implanted into six patients' brains, with another four implants yet to be carried out.

Of the six implanted patients, four were doing well but two weren't having the desired results.

"Four of the six, the cravings have dramatically gone down. Two of the six have stopped drinking completely. Two have become social drinkers. And unfortunately [for] two it doesn't seem to work very well, so the results are promising but are definitely not 100 per cent."

De Ridder said the idea was relatively simple. Brain imaging showed cravings were controlled by a "general circuit", irrespective of whether those cravings were for food, alcohol or illegal substances.

The technology is aimed at those whose health had been severely impaired by alcohol, and who had tried every other non-surgical treatment available.

De Ridder planned to present the preliminary results to a conference in Barcelona next year.

If promising enough, it would be widened to include many more patients and research centres overseas.

- NZ Herald

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