Use of electricity on drug-damaged brains is studied

February 03, 1991|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,Knight-Ridder News Service

This is your brain: a pleasant sphere of blue. This is your brain craving drugs: a sphere of blue with an ugly white blotch.

On a brain-mapping device in the clinic of Eric Braverman, the brain of a cocaine abuser reveals the field of white. The color indicates the decreased electrical activity associated with a craving for drugs -- a marker unique to substance abusers.

To target that marker, Mr. Braverman and a research partner have devised a controversial treatment for drug abusers: a gentle electrical stimulation of the brain to reduce drug cravings. Through electrodes attached to the head or wrist, Mr. Braverman contends, a weak electric current can "reset" the electrical imbalance associated with drug abuse.

On the brain maps in his clinic outside Princeton, N.J., the electric current "erases" the white blot by restoring the brain's normal electrical balance, says Mr. Braverman. "Prescription electricity," he calls it. It is an offbeat concept far beyond the mainstream of current substance-abuse treatment.

"If you have psychological problems, you go to therapy. And if you have spiritual problems, you go to a pastor," said the 32-year-old neurobiological researcher and physician who runs a for-profit medical clinic. "So if the electricity in your brain is abnormal, why not correct it with electricity?"

Some researchers say Mr. Braverman's theories, though obscure and unproven, are worth further study. Others say he is wasting his time. But many specialists in substance-abuse research agree that he has come closer than anyone to showing that electricity can change brain waves affected by drug abuse.

"It's an exciting thing he's doing," said Ernest Noble, a former directorof the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism who directs alcohol research at UCLA. "It's something that should be further explored as a simple, cheap way to treat [substance abusers] without using drugs."

But Mr. Noble added that Mr. Braverman's research must be subjected to "rigid scrutiny" and duplicated in larger studies before any conclusions can be drawn about electricity's effectiveness in treating substance abuse.

One leading substance-abuse researcher in New York, whose work with alcoholics is cited in Mr. Braverman's research papers, said of the project: "It's not taken seriously." The researcher, who asked not to be quoted by name, added: "It's laughable."

Mr. Braverman, a graduate of New York University Medical School, and his partner, University of Texas at San Antonio researcher Kenneth Blum, have applied scientific devices in new ways in their research, completed last year.

One device is BEAM -- the Brain Electrical Activity Mapping machine, developed at Harvard to record the brain's electrical levels. The device is used to diagnose head trauma, epilepsy, learning disorders, headaches and other medical problems.

In his studies, Mr. Braverman used BEAM to map the brain waves of 60 substance abusers, 37 of them cocaine abusers and 23 drug and alcohol abusers.

Of the 60, only three had normal brain maps -- and those three had not used drugs for at least three years, Mr. Braverman said. The 57 others had highly irregular maps, with lower electrical activity in four areas of the brain than is seen in the brain maps of normal subjects.

The substance abusers, wearing an electrode cap over their skulls, were mapped as they performed a brain reflex test involving sound,light and counting. Mr. Braverman said the brains of the 57 abusers showed low electrical activity for a brain wave known as the P300 wave, the accepted marker for drug abuse.

"If you've dulled your brain with drugs or alcohol, that neuron in this part of the brain is saying, 'Sorry, buddy, but I'm asleep, I'm not going to contribute,' " Mr. Braverman said. "You cannot get enough cells in your head to focus in. Your brain waves -- your 'voltage' -- is very low."

Mr. Braverman compares a low-voltage P300 wave as a marker for substance abuse to a high cholesterol level as a marker for heart disease. And just as a pacemaker "repaces" the heart, he said, electrical stimulation can "repace" a brain whose electrical rhythms have been thrown out of whack by drugs or alcohol.

John Seals, a neurologist at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center who helped Mr. Braverman set up his BEAM device, said he still had not proved that the P300 waves were not changed by some force or factor other than electricity.

And Charles Dackis, a physician who studies cocaine craving and teaches at Columbia University, said Mr. Braverman was wrong to associate craving with a low P300 wave. That correlation has not been proved, he said.

Although Mr. Braverman's most recent studies were published in the October issue of Current Therapeutic Research, he conceded his results were not conclusive.

He pointed out that his subjects were motivated, middle- and upper-class people who sincerely wanted to stop using drugs or alcohol. And, he said, while his data showed that their P300 brain waves indeed improved under treatment, the conclusion that treatment reduced craving was based on the subjects' own subjective reports.

Even so, Mr. Braverman said, the research has added to the body of knowledge about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain.

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