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Controversial Addiction Treatments: Brain Surgery in China

For some time now, the scientific and medical communities have had a better understanding about addiction. With the discovery of what is often referred to as “the alcoholic gene,” there is greater clarity on the nature of addiction – that in the debate of nature versus nurture, it is a combination of the two. Our brains have what is technically called the nucleus accumbens, which is in laymen’s terms called the pleasure center of the brain. This area is has us feeling good about life’s pleasures such as getting that job promotion, having sex, a runner’s high and, in the case of people whose tendency is one of addiction, drugs, food, and even behaviors such as shopping and gambling.

China and Addiction

In China, addiction has perhaps an even more negatively-charged stigma than in other parts of the world. In their desperation to seek a “cure” for their societal problem of drug trafficking and chronic addiction, a small handful of doctors in China are going to extremes to rid people of addiction. As a last resort against seemingly untreatable cases of addiction to heroin and alcohol, these doctors are resorting to brain surgery. They are attempting to erase drug-seeking behaviors and motivation by erasing a part of addicts’ brains. This is being done in the face of worldwide condemnation and  even more scary, in the name of scientific research.

Controversial Addiction Treatment: Brain Surgery

The procedure involves drilling small holes into the skulls of patients and inserting long electrodes which extend down to the pleasure center part of the brain. Electrical current is then passed through the electrodes which kill the cells of the reward center. By ridding the addicts of their reward centers, doctors hope to then rid them of their addictions. The surgery is performed while the patients are awake to minimize the chance of damaging regions involved in sensation, movement or consciousness.

Brain Surgery for Addiction Banned

In 2004, however, the Chinese Ministry of Health banned the procedure after they determined that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to show that it was safe in the long term. However, the surgery has been performed at least 1,000 times since the 2004 ban. Some doctors were allowed to continue the procedure for research purposes. And making good on their scientific pursuit, doctors at the military Tangdu Hospital in Xi’an last month published a study documenting the long-term outcome and changes of the personality and psychology of opiate addicts after having this controversial procedure. There are concerns about the accuracy of the reported results of the study as well as to whether participants in the study truly know the nature of the procedure and the risks they are taking in having it done.  

Brain Surgery as Cure? These doctors are hoping to put an end to drug cravings experienced by heroin addicts and alcoholics by destroying their brains’ pleasure centers. However, damaging the reward center of the brain permanently robs them of experiencing the entire human spectrum of natural longings and emotions, including the ability to feel joy. This is a fate worse than death.    



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