Scientist undergoes brain operation to cure alcoholism

A disease researcher with a deadly drinking habit credits a brain operation with giving him his life back.

Rick Docksai | Dec 28, 2019

AA Canadian microbiologist who has struggled for years with alcoholism credits a first-of-its-kind brain operation with ending his addiction and giving him his life back. The scientist, Frank Plummer, is the first person in North America known to have received this treatment.

"I'm very excited about the results. It took away my cravings and it made me change my mood, hugely," he said, adding that without this treatment, "I'd be dead, several months ago."

Plummer is the former director of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory and oversaw the lab's response to a SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. He also oversaw development of a successful vaccine for Ebola.

In 2014, however, he retired due to what his spokesperson called personal reasons." Problems with alcohol were a factor: He was drinking up to 20 ounces of whiskey every evening, and he experienced liver failure in 2012. Plummer tried counseling and rehab without success.

Plummer underwent the operation at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. A neurosurgeon drilled holes into Plummer's skull and inserted electrodes deep into his brain. The electrodes are attached to a pacemaker-like device that stimulates a brain region, the nucleus accumbens, which is linked to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is involved in feelings of pleasure, motivation, and addiction cravings.

Nir Lipsman, a neurosurgeon at the centre and one of the researchers behind the experimental treatment, said that the procedure aims to disrupt the neuron circuitry that drives the patient's addiction. Once the circuitry is altered, the patient will no longer be addicted to alcohol, he said.

Lipsman explained that the procedure may be an option for patients who are severely addicted and have tried all other options without success.