West Virginia University study connects pacemaker to the brain to treat opioid addiction

Health

MORGTANTOWN, W.Va. (NewsNation Now) — A rise in opioid addiction and drug-related deaths is another effect of the coronavirus pandemic across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s hitting especially hard in West Virginia, and West Virginia University is in the middle of a groundbreaking study aimed at solving the problem.

Garrett Fox, 22, is part of the study.

“The past time in January, I was Narcan-ed four times from that one overdose, because the first dose didn’t work, the second dose didn’t work, the third one didn’t work,” said Fox. “And they were about to just call the EMT to tell him that I’d like died and they gave that fourth one and I finally, like, came out of it.”

Fox said he had a normal upbringing with a supportive family but when he was 14, he had his wisdom teeth pulled. He was prescribed oxycodone for the pain. He felt the angst almost all teenagers do, but suddenly felt good and worry-free when on the drugs. His addiction grew until, one day Fox was shooting heroin, cut and laced with fentanyl.

“He’s overdosed over and over and come right to the brink of death, which is what makes him perfect for this,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, of West Virginia University.

Rezai is a brain surgeon performing the procedure in the study that aims to connect a pacemaker to the human brain. It’s been used for Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, OCD and now addiction, but only in the most extreme cases.

“This is for patients who’ve failed every treatment, are severe, end-stage, and really don’t have any other options,” Rezai said. “The goal of the pacemaker here is to see if we can reduce the cravings and reduce the electrical imbalance in that part of the brain and calm that part of the brain down and normalize it so people can be more in charge of their cravings and feel less anxiety and less of a drive to seek drugs.”

“Because if you have had more than ten overdoses like Garrett has, god forbid one of those overdoses if there’s somebody not next to him to revive him, bring him back. He may not return,” Rezai said.

Rezai’s first patient underwent the deep brain stimulation in 2019, and remains drug-free.

Fox believes this treatment is his last option and that if he overdoses again it will be his last.

“That’s just a ridiculous number. To be at death’s door that many times and still come out the other side,” said Fox. “And it’s like to have that many chances to get your life together and now it’s just like I have this opportunity to make it finally.”

According to the CDC, about 128 Americans die of an overdose daily, and 20 million U.S. adults have some form of substance abuse disorder, although the number is likely much higher.

As cutting-edge science removes some of the stigma around addiction, experts are hopeful that more will get help.

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