Acclaimed scientist gets brain surgery for alcohol addiction

Jan 21, 2020 | General

Microbiologist Frank Plummer has become the guinea pig in a clinical trial investigating whether brain implants can help treat alcohol use disorder.

He’s loved his work describing it as vital and exciting, but stressful, with 12-hour days that began with coffee and would end with several glasses of scotch. His drinking escalated to about 20 ounces of the booze a night.  It didn’t seem to affect his work – until 2012, when his “liver packed it in”

The diagnosis of chronic liver failure was followed by a liver transplant. He had to watch his alcohol intake to preserve his new liver – but he found his alcohol had become a powerful thirst.  Dr Plummer tried treatment – rehab programmes, support groups, counselling, medications – but any relief was temporary. He would inevitably slip back into drinking.

“It was pretty hopeless cycle…,I was in the hospital a lot, I almost died several times.”

He went looking for help – “a more robust clinical solution, perhaps one not yet discovered” – and was referred to two neurosurgeons at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.  They were recruiting patients for an experimental procedure being conducted in North America for the first time, using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to help patients with treatment-resistant alcohol use disorder. The surgical trial is testing how safe and effective DBS is for alcohol addiction.

Patients are awake for the surgery.

Dr Plummer says the worst part of the procedure were the noise and vibrations when surgeons drilled into his skull in order to implant the electrodes.  “It was a large drill that drills about a 25 cent piece out of your skull on both sides – that wasn’t painful but it was annoying,” he says.

DBS is frequently described as a type of “pacemaker” for the brain.  Dr Plummer was the trial’s first patient and underwent the experimental surgery just over a year ago.  The surgeon says Dr Plummer has seen an improvement in both his cravings and his mood.

But he cautions the research is in early stages – and that it’s not a silver bullet.

You can read more here, or maybe this has made some other solutions seem more attractive – personally I’d rather put pen to paper for a 4th step than have Drs drill into my skull while I’m still awake!!

Wish you speedy healing Dr Plummer and sustained abstinence from that powerful thirst.