What is Vagus nerve stimulation, and how does it impact addiction?
Apparently, every human being has a long nerve that runs from their brain down to their gut. This nerve is probably responsible for “gut feelings” and has a lot to do with how the brain processes information and feelings.
Researchers have discovered that they can accelerate the speed at which a person drives a fearful or hurtful memory to “extinction” by using electrical impulses on this vagus nerve.
Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201701/vagus-nerve-stimulation-holds-promise-treating-addiction said “This approach really has the potential to become a therapy during rehab where people do this kind of exposure therapy, where they look at the stimuli that used to trigger their craving, while they are abstaining in a safe situation.” So in other words, if you take a cocaine addict and put them in rehab where they are safe and abstaining from their drug of choice, you can try to do various things in order to help them to overcome their cravings for cocaine. One thing you can do is to show them triggers for their drug, such as a crack pipe or a pile of white powder, and because they are safe and sober, they can experience this trigger over and over again without it leading to relapse. So this is one way to create extinction with the cravings, with repeated exposure to the triggers in a safe environment.
But what the researchers have learned is that adding in the electrical nerve stimulation to this process makes it more effective. Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170123162315.htm said that “Extinction of fearful memories and extinction of drug-seeking memories relies on the same substrate in the brain. In our experiments, VNS facilitates both the extinction learning and reduces the relapse response as well.”
In other words, if you are trying to help addicts to overcome their triggers based on this kind of exposure, you will see increased success if you add in vagus nerve stimulation.
It is an exciting discovery because we are learning more and more over the last few years that addiction is a disease of the brain. This is different from what was believed in the past, because we did not really know if addiction was behavioral, or if it was just a moral issue, or what was really driving the issue. But today we know that addiction really is a problem with the human brain, and this research with VNS only further cements this truth.
What does this mean for the future of addiction treatment? The hope is that we can find more and more treatments that can have a direct impact on the success of people who are struggling to find sobriety. While we may not get to the level of having an actual “cure” for addiction, we are getting closer to that reality with advancements such as VNS. If we extrapolate with future technologies we can see that one day we may achieve similar results with a chip implant rather than an electrical stimulation of a nerve. Or, we may have a chip implanted that can do exactly that–a chip that can stimulate our vagus nerve throughout the day while we are maintaining abstinence, helping us to accelerate the overcoming of triggers.
Some people worry that we are bordering on something like mind control, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In the case of VNS, the alcoholic or drug addict still has to want to get clean and sober. They must still initiate the push for recovery and they also have to find a safe and clean environment where they can experience some sober time. This is because VNS does not appear to help if you are still abusing drugs or alcohol, based on the fact that it reinforces your sobriety and helps you to overcome old triggers.
Therefore there is no need to worry about mind control. We are not at a place with medical science where we are able to “cure” addiction by forcing someone to want to avoid drugs and alcohol. The desire to want sobriety still has to come from the individual, and we still do not have a magic pill or treatment that creates the desire for sobriety. This level of “cure” may never exist in our world, and if so, then there will always be self destructive people in addiction and alcoholism who just have to find their bottom naturally. It would be nice if there was a treatment or therapy developed that could convince the addict or alcoholic to want to change their life, but so far this does not seem to be a reality. All we have in the advancing world of addiction treatment are things that can help people who are self motivated to want to change.
That said, progress is being made. We are learning more and more about addiction treatment all the time, we continue to collect data, and new treatments (such as VNS) and new medications for addiction are continuously being explored and developed. I would not hold my breath for an outright cure, but I can imagine that in ten years from now we will have a host of medications and therapies that can, at the very least, reduce the amount of craving that a newly recovering addict or alcoholic will have to face.
Some people scoff at such medical advances, and say that there is nothing wrong with traditional treatment and therapies. They argue that “this stuff works if you work it, and it won’t if you don’t.” But if medical science can perform double blind studies with large groups of alcoholics, and then prove that one therapy or treatment is superior to others, then why should we stick with the old methods that are less effective? I think it is important to remain open minded as we learn more and more about addiction and recovery. As they say in one of the recovery fellowships “We know only a little.” Therefore I don’t believe that we should turn a blind eye to science and the studies that are done to try and improve our treatment of addiction.
If shooting an electrical pulse into the brain can help an alcoholic to avoid relapse, then I believe we should be pursuing such findings. Because of the far reaching damage of even one person suffering from addiction, the potential benefit and reward of helping that person is very far reaching. In other words, we should do everything that we can in order to learn more about overcoming addiction, and any new treatment or therapies that are showing promise should certainly be investigated. The payoff of even one alcoholic remaining sober is just too great to ignore.