W.Va. scientists developing micro-implant technology to combat drug crisis

Published: Jan. 15, 2018 at 11:07 PM EST
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One of our region's biggest problems could soon be solved by something incredibly small.

"They were a third of the size of maybe a grain of rice," that is how West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice described a micro-implant treatment that is being developed at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute during his State of the State address last week.

"We would like West Virginia to be one of the premier states in the country that is taking the opioid crisis and dealing with it head-on," explains Dr. Ali Rezai, the director of the institute.

Rezai says there will be two kinds of microchips that can be implanted in patients.

The first will be specifically for addicts. It would be injected in a patient's nerves, brain or spinal cord.

"The chips are used to basically block the brain and nervous system signals that are contributing to the addictive behavior," Rezai said.

The other type of chip would be for chronic pain sufferers who are not addicted to painkillers. The chip would be implanted at the site of the pain, delivering non-opioid medicine directly to the location where it's needed, eliminating the need for pills.

Rezai says the hope is to begin testing on humans within one year.

"We're doing everything possible to fast-track this, but number one is safety," Rezai said. If the results of the research studies show benefit, I see this, within three to five years, being available."

Rezai says researchers are also working on external devices that would provide the same kinds of treatment without an implant.

He says those devices use magnet technology -- that's already used similarly to treat depression -- to curb addiction.

Additionally, Rezai says, the institute is working on a wearable medical sensor. It would work by measuring brain activity -- establishing which patterns indicate a patient is at high-risk for exercising addictive behavior. Rezai says the goal is to be able to warn family, friends, and others in an addict support system, in real time, about when they are at the highest risk of abusing drugs.