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Doctors Explore Experimental Brain Surgery to Treat Chronic Substance Use

Doctors at West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute are hoping that an experimental brain surgery will help those struggling with severe and chronic substance use.

NBC News’ Kate Snow gets an exclusive look at the process and introduces us to James Fisher, the third person in the country to undergo the procedure.

Experimental brain surgery may help some people overcome drug addiction

By Caleb Hellerman

(CNN HEALTH) - When her son bounced up the steep stone steps and through the door of the house he shared with his mother and father, Gina Buckhalter was wary. It was no secret that Gerod was a heavy drug user, addicted to opioids for more than half his 33 years.

Gina was used to surprises, but this day brought a big one. "He said, 'They actually approached me about having brain surgery for addiction,' " she recalls. "And I literally wanted to pass out on the floor."

"They" were a research team at the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, based at the University of West Virginia, about 10 miles away, across the state line from the Buckhalter home in Dilliner, Pennsylvania. Buckhalter was already a patient at the institute, where he was being treated by Dr. James Mahoney, a specialist in substance use disorder.

Over the years, Buckhalter had tried time and again to get sober, but his longest stretch of success was just three months. Most only lasted a few days.

His troubles had begun early. Buckhalter grew up in Dilliner, a nervous, anxious child who was also a basketball and football star, fielding Division I scholarship offers in 10th grade. The local paper named him "Mr. Everything."

By Buckhalter's senior year, that dream was gone. A shoulder injury at age 15 led to a prescription for opioid painkillers. His doctors prescribed the pills for six weeks. After that, Buckhalter found them on his own.

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