As a child, did you ever reach for a cookie that was too hot or the last piece of bacon and get your hand smacked for your troubles? After a while, you probably gave up, realizing that your mom or dad was always going to magically notice and you were always going to get your knuckles rapped. Now imagine if that same idea could be applied to drug or alcohol addiction treatment. In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), neuroscientists from Stanford University say that they’ve achieved this sort of metaphorical hand-slapping in binge-eating mice. They discovered a pattern of brain activity that shows up seconds before the animals start to binge, and it turns out that delivering stimulation to that part of the brain kept the mice from overindulging.

The Stanford study used a brain stimulation device that is already approved for the treatment of resistant epilepsy. This method, called deep brain stimulation (DBS), is a surgical treatment in which battery-powered implants send electrical pulses to areas of the brain where signals are not being sent correctly. The Food and Drug Administration has approved DBS therapy for certain disorders that have to do with movement, such as Parkinson’s disease, tremor, and dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions. Usually it’s meant for people who haven’t responded well to medications. DBS may also be a last-resort treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Clinical trials are set to begin next summer to determine its usefulness in fighting obesity. However, scientists say that it could also have a role to play in other addictive urges. Another study published in PNAS shows that DBS could be used to improve memory, and research suggests that it could be used to treat substance abuse and other reward-seeking behaviors.

Previous experiments with DBS stimulated the brain continuously, which interfered with the mice’s social behavior. The positive effects also wore off in a few days. Now, researchers are looking into devices that would only switch on when they sensed trouble.  In 2013, the FDA approved a newer-generation device, known as a responsive neurostimulation system (RNS), which is implanted into the brain. It can sense epileptic seizures and slow their spread with little jolts to the area of origin.

When the RNS device was tested on the binging mice, they looked for a biomarker – an indication in the brain that the mouse was about to seek out the fatty food on offer. They then programmed the RNS to deliver a 10-second pulse whenever it detects this biomarker. For comparison, other mice were given DBS. The results showed that the RNS was considerably more effective than the continuous stimulation.


Of course, it’s going to be difficult to see how this might work for substance use disorders in humans. Most people aren’t going to volunteer for brain surgery, after all. Still, the possibility is there.

If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.