This Brain Implant Was Supposed To Cure His OCD, But It Had An Unexpected Affect On His Diabetes Too

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Relaxation is good for the body and the mind, and there’s nothing like a good massage to truly let your brain unwind. But how far do the benefits extend?

A man seeking treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was advised to try a new treatment in the Netherlands. Doctors implanted electrodes designed to stimulate the deep brain tissue responsible for decision-making, reward-seeking, and motivation. The treatment, called deep brain stimulation or DBS, helped the 53-year-old man overcome his OCD, but it also helped him improve his type 2 diabetes. Researchers wanted to know why.

Researchers theorized that the brain stimulation released more dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward centers. Dopamine also helps regulate emotional responses, and those low on dopamine may have a stronger tendency toward addiction.

Researchers wanted to see if the DBS treatment could have been responsible for the man’s improvement. He’d gone from using 226 international units of insulin every day to 180—a huge difference. Fourteen other people with DBS implants (also for OCD) were recruited for a study on DBS therapy’s effect on their blood sugar levels. Researchers turned off the DBS devices for 17 hours and measured the participants’ blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. Levels were measured again after the DBS device had been reactivated.

The study, though small, did show that DBS therapy increased the participants’ insulin sensitivity. The DBS activated dopamine, and dopamine encouraged glucose uptake and insulin release. Similar studies on rodents also demonstrated that stimulating the deep-brain tissue improves glucose regulation.

If dopamine activity improves glucose control and reduces the need for insulin, and DBS helps release dopamine, then could DBS be an option for people with type 2 diabetes?

Researchers hope that studying the effect of dopamine release and its role in insulin release and glucose uptake could lead to beneficial therapies. But a brain-implant for diabetes may not be around the corner. Nima Saeidi, assistant professor of surgery of Harvard Medical School, warns that long-term exposure to DBS may actually lead to elevated glucose levels and damage to cells and organs. But it may be a possible treatment at earlier stages of the disease.

Researchers hope to better understand the relationship between dopamine signaling and insulin resistance. If scientists are able to better understand the parts of the brain that control glucose and insulin release, then they may be able to use the knowledge to find new treatments, and ideally, prevention methods.

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