Original Paper


, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 129-142

First online:

Ethical Issues Raised by Proposals to Treat Addiction Using Deep Brain Stimulation

  • Adrian CarterAffiliated withUQ Centre for Clinical Research, The University of Queensland Email author 
  • , Emily BellAffiliated withNeuroethics Research Unit, Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal
  • , Eric RacineAffiliated withNeuroethics Research Unit, Institut de recherches cliniques de MontréalDepartment of Medicine and Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Université de MontréalDepartments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Medicine, and Biomedical Ethics Unit, McGill University
  • , Wayne HallAffiliated withUQ Centre for Clinical Research and Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland

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Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been proposed as a potential treatment of drug addiction on the basis of its effects on drug self-administration in animals and on addictive behaviours in some humans treated with DBS for other psychiatric or neurological conditions. DBS is seen as a more reversible intervention than ablative neurosurgery but it is nonetheless a treatment that carries significant risks. A review of preclinical and clinical evidence for the use of DBS to treat addiction suggests that more animal research is required to establish the safety and efficacy of the technology and to identify optimal treatment parameters before investigating its use in addicted persons. Severely addicted persons who try and fail to achieve abstinence may, however, be desperate enough to undergo such an invasive treatment if they believe that it will cure their addiction. History shows that the desperation for a “cure” of addiction can lead to the use of risky medical procedures before they have been rigorously tested. In the event that DBS is used in the treatment of addiction, we provide minimum ethical requirements for clinical trials of its use in the treatment of addiction. These include: restrictions of trials to severely intractable cases of addiction; independent oversight to ensure that patients have the capacity to consent and give that consent on the basis of a realistic appreciation of the potential benefits and risks of DBS; and rigorous assessments of the effectiveness and safety of this treatment compared to the best available treatments for addiction.


Addiction Deep brain stimulation Treatment Neurosurgery Neuroethics Consent Coercion