Habit Binge

Meet the man who had pioneering brain surgery to help beat his opioid addiction


Sara-Jayne King interviews recovering addict Gerod Buckhalter and Dr James Mahoney from West Virginia University.

– Gerod Buckhalter took part in a 2019 clinical trial using deep brain stimulation to help patients suffering from treatment-resistant opioid use disorder

– DBS has been used for other conditions like Parkinson’s disease

– Buckhalter was addicted for 17 years has been clean ever since the brain surgery

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Gerod Buckhalter is the first person in the US to undergo deep brain stimulation (DBS) for drug addiction.

Now in his early thirties, Buckhalter had failed to kick his 17-year addiction to opioids after trying various treatments.

He underwent the pioneering brain surgery at the West Virginia University (WVU) Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute in 2019.

Image supplied by Gerod Buckhalter

On Weekend Breakfast, Sara-Jayne King talks to Buckhalter and Dr. James Mahoney, assistant professor and clinical neuropsychologist at the WVU School of Medicine.

Buckhalter was prescribed Percocet – a painkiller containing oxycodone – after dislocating his shoulder during sports practice as a teenager.

He was instantly hooked and conned the doctor into continuing to give him the prescription for a long period, he says.

It was pure relief. I often say if I could design myself to feel a certain way, that’s exactly what I would want for myself – that euphoric feeling. It just made everything ok.

Gerod Buckhalter

I also immediately knew right then and there that I wanted to feel that same way every day.

Gerod Buckhalter

When that ran out, Buckhalter hit the streets as a 15-year-old to find pills.

When you’re an addict you’ll find any way possible to get that drug that you’re addicted to.

Gerod Buckhalter

At the age of 19 he was introduced to oxycontin and that took his addiction to a completely different level he says.

To get hold of his drug of choice Buckhalter started stealing, even pawning his parents’ jewellery and guns.

He switched to heroin when he could no longer fund his oxycontin habit: “That’s when it really got out of hand”.

Buckhalter says there have been many rock bottoms but one that stands out is when his parents kicked him out “at the age of 20 on Christmas Day”.

He took part in WVU’s ground-breaking clinical trial after numerous failed attempts to get clean.

Dr Mahoney emphasizes that using deep brain stimulation for this purpose was aimed at addicts like Buckhalter who are treatment resistant.

They’ll keeping coming back… That really shows that it’s not resistance in terms of the patient resisting the treatment. They’re actively trying to stop using but despite all these different types of treatments they’re receiving, they’re still struggling to remain abstinent.

Dr James Mahoney, Clinical neuropsychologist – WVU School of Medicine

I had a lot of trust in my doctors… and I again trusted the process after the surgery with all the follow-up. I knew that if I invested in that I was going to get the results.

Gerod Buckhalter

We first had this idea several years ago… We realised how much the addiction epidemic is impacting so many people. We really needed to step outside the box… We had the perfect combination of expertise that was needed for this type of trial…

Dr James Mahoney, Clinical neuropsychologist – WVU School of Medicine

Dr Mahoney says a comprehensive multi-disciplinary team was put together for the trial which included neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists, psychologists and social workers.

He explains the concept of deep brain stimulation, in layman’s terms.

It’s used for other conditions as well, for example with tremor. If you put the stimulator in a certain area of the brain and turn it on, it’s able to… stop shaking completely.

Dr James Mahoney, Clinical neuropsychologist – WVU School of Medicine

With addiction it’s not the shaking or the tremor, it’s substance cravings… Here we looked at a different area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens… the centre of the reward area of the brain…

Dr James Mahoney, Clinical neuropsychologist – WVU School of Medicine

Our hope was that if we’re able to stimulate this area of the brain we’re able to bring the dopamine back to the baseline level and help individuals be able to succeed with the standard level of care.

Dr James Mahoney, Clinical neuropsychologist – WVU School of Medicine

I felt much better [afterwards]. I didn’t feel so down and depressed. My anxiety was much better, I felt calmer and really started finding joy immediately in life… Because of that, I didn’t crave as much…

Gerod Buckhalter

We never viewed this procedure… as just flipping the addiction switch off… This is just another tool to use with treatment to help you… like behavioural therapy and counselling….

Dr James Mahoney, Clinical neuropsychologist – WVU School of Medicine

Does the success of this treatment underline the belief held by some that addiction is actually a disease?

“We certainly believe there is a disease component” says Dr Mahoney.

Buckhalter says he doesn’t consider himself safe or cured, but in a life-long recovery process.

He now works in the field of addiction.

Scroll to the top of the article for the audio to listen to the fascinating interviews

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