Circumcision of the brain?

opiate addiction
Photo by Domiriel

Physicians in China performed brain surgeries to treat opiate addiction by destroying the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain. The procedure is called stereotactic ablation of the nucleus accumbens, which means brain tissue is burned away. Although the procedure was banned in 2004, surgeries continued in the name of research.

The hope was that by destroying the part of our brain responsible for pleasure associated with drug use (among other things) the desire for using drugs would diminish. Results published in World Neurosurgery last October showed that 5 years after the surgery, 53% of participants had relapsed and were addicted to opiates again. In addition, 21% of participants experienced memory deficits and 18% experienced loss of motivation. These side effects are permanent due to the irreversible nature of the treatment. Read more about this controversial surgery here.

It is clear that addiction has devastating effects, but how far are we willing to go to treat it? Is it fair to ask addicts to potentially sacrifice pleasure and motivation to kick their habit? Some of the participants of this study were as young as 19 years old and had been addicted to heroin for 3 years. Granted, this research was conducted in China, a place where the death penalty is considered a suitable intervention for addiction. Is it ethical to have moral standards influence scientific research? Where do we draw the line?