- The opioid epidemic claims about 128 lives every day in the US.
- But doctors are hoping a risky type of brain surgery can be used to treat addiction and put a dent in that number.
- We followed one former opioid addict of 18 years who found sobriety after undergoing the surgical procedure, known as deep brain stimulation.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Gerod Buckhalter believes a pioneering brain surgery is his last hope to overcoming his addiction to opioids. Doctors will insert a long string of metal into his brain to control his cravings. The wire will go in the part of the brain involved in addiction and receive signals from a pacemaker in his chest. Buckhalter is the first patient in a clinical trial at West Virginia University. If successful, doctors hope it could be rolled out more widely, and put a dent in the opioid epidemic that claims about 128 American lives per day.
Source: NCBIBuckhalter remembers the first time he took one. "I felt like I arrived," he said. "I was able to socialize so much easier. Everything that was a little difficult became very easy and I loved that." He added, "It gave me a feeling that nothing in this world could ever come close to. Just so numb and just so good." Soon, Buckhalter was taking a month's worth of OxyContin — 120 30-milligram pills — in about five days. "Quite frankly, I didn't care if I died," he said. Gerod's addiction became a lifestyle that followed him into adulthood. At one point, most of his salary went to buying pills, until he lost his job and couldn't afford them anymore. "We started dabbling in heroin because it was cheaper and better," he said. "Then things really went downhill." Buckhalter's mother, Gina, recalled a disturbing phone call she got from Gerod. "One day I was at work and he called and said, "Mom, I'm gonna die if you don't help me," she said. "He said, 'I'm addicted to pain pills and I have to take more and more to get the effect.' The amount of drugs that he was on was lethal." "At the rate I was going, I was going to die without a doubt," Buckhalter said. "I was going to overdose. It was just a matter of time." Now, he finds himself getting ready for surgery. He will be awake for about 80% of the long procedure. Ali Rezai, the neurosurgeon performing Buckhalter's surgery, began by showing Buckhalter images of different drugs and taking note of the biological signals his brain would respond with. "We're able to stimulate and block that craving coming from the brain that's going to make him want to do the things that he does," Rezai said. Hours later, the operation was a success. And for the first time since he was a teenager, Gerod has been able to stay clean. In August, he celebrated eleven months sober. "Most of the time when I would have cravings, they would be so strong and they just would not go away. I would start obsessing about it. Now, they're fleeting thoughts," Buckhalter said. More than 19 million Americans suffer from addiction. Doctors hope this surgery could eventually be used as treatment for some of those people. But it would most likely be used only in extreme cases like Buckhalter's, because brain surgery is risky. "I think this is the first step in hopefully curing unhealthy behaviors, including addiction, which would obviously be a major breakthrough," said one of the doctors involved in the procedure. For Buckhalter's parents, it's nothing short of a miracle. "Thank God they picked him," his father Rex said. "How did we get here to this extreme? But there's a light at the end of the tunnel now."
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