Surgical approaches to drug and alcohol addiction are controversial among members of the medical community.

Doctors in China are experimenting with an extreme treatment for addiction. The experimental procedure consists of destroying portions of the brain’s pleasure center in an attempt to stop cravings for opiate drugs like heroin. Possible side effects including permanently disabling an addict’s ability to experience the entire range of human emotions, including the capacity to feel joy.

Attempts to Ban Controversial Procedure

The controversial procedure was banned by the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2004, due in part to pressure from Western media related to ethical concerns. There are also suspicions that researchers have not been truthful about results of the procedure and have exaggerated the benefits in order to be published in leading medical journals. The Ministry of Health’s decision was also reported to be based on the lack of long term data about effects of the procedure.

The ban on the procedure was not complete, however. Some physicians have been allowed to continue their research on the use of brain surgery to treat addiction. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported on one Chinese doctor who claimed to have performed the surgery on more than 1000 patients. The same doctor admitted to using the procedure on another 1000 patients to treat depression, epilepsy and schizophrenia.

Lasting Side Effects

A study of the procedure, which is referred to in the medical community as ablation of the nucleus accumbens, was recently published in World Neurosurgery, a Western medical journal. Publication of the study has sparked a debate about whether this type of research should be included in a reputable scientific journal. One of the authors of the study, Guodon Gao, describes the surgery as a feasible solution for psychological dependence on opiate drugs.

The study describes lasting side effects experienced by more than 50% of the patients who had the procedure, including a loss of motivation and memory problems. The study also found that more than half the patients had relapsed within five years and were once again addicted to opiates. If these results are true, the success rate is only slightly better than the 30 to 40% success rate that can be achieved with conventional substance abuse and addiction treatment.

The area of the brain that the surgery affects controls the desire for opiate drugs as well as for more fundamental pleasures like food, sex and love. Many Western scientists are concerned that a procedure that results in life-changing alterations to the brain is being performed in a country where citizens have limited human rights.