For years, Frank Plummer was dependent on alcohol, drinking 20 ounces of scotch a day. An infectious disease scientist who worked in Kenya at the height of the HIV epidemic, Plummer turned to alcohol in the 1980s to deal with the stress of his job, and also the grief that came with witnessing the devastation of AIDS firsthand.
Plummer drank to celebrate and relax, too. Alcohol controlled his life, but he didn’t realize that until 2012, when his liver began to fail. Even when he got a liver transplant in 2014, he soon started drinking heavily again. He tried Alcoholics Anonymous, rehab, medication, and counseling, but nothing worked. He wasn’t able to stop drinking.
“I was basically on a path to death,” he tells OneZero.
Then he learned about an experimental treatment for alcohol use disorder that would require drilling two nickel-sized holes into his skull. There was no guarantee it would work, but Plummer decided to sign up for a small study in Canada to test the treatment. In December 2018, surgeons opened up his skull and placed two tiny electrodes deep in his brain. The electrodes deliver steady pulses of electricity, like a pacemaker.
A few weeks after Plummer’s surgery, researchers turned on the electrical current. Plummer can’t feel the stimulation, but he thinks it is helping. Since getting the implant more than a year ago, he says he doesn’t crave alcohol as much as he used to. Though he isn’t completely sober, he thinks the implant is allowing him to moderate his drinking. He doesn’t drink every day, and when he does, he has no more than three or four drinks. “I still drink a little bit, but I think it’s under control now,” he says. “It’s not ruining my life.”
“I was basically on a path to death.”
Plummer and a handful of others are the first people in North America to get brain implants to treat their drug and alcohol addictions. Having tried all other options, they’re putting their hope in a drastic treatment that could be revolutionary.