The Moral Obligation to Prioritize Research Into Deep Brain Stimulation Over Brain Lesioning Procedures for Severe Enduring Anorexia Nervosa

Frontiers in Psychiatry 9:523 (forthcoming)
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Deep Brain Stimulation is currently being investigated as an experimental treatment for patients suffering from treatment-refractory AN, with an increasing number of case reports and small-scale trials published. Although still at an exploratory and experimental stage, initial results have been promising. Despite the risks associated with an invasive neurosurgical procedure and the long-term implantation of a foreign body, DBS has a number of advantageous features for patients with SE-AN. Stimulation can be fine-tuned to the specific needs of the particular patient, is relatively reversible, and the technique also allows for the crucial issue of investigating and comparing the effects of different neural targets. However, at a time when DBS is emerging as a promising investigational treatment modality for AN, lesioning procedures in psychiatry are having a renaissance. Of concern it has been argued that the two kinds of interventions should instead be understood as rivaling, yet “mutually enriching paradigms” despite the fact that lesioning the brain is irreversible and there is no evidence base for an effective target in AN. We argue that lesioning procedures in AN are unethical at this stage of knowledge and seriously problematic for this patient group, for whom self-control is particularly central to wellbeing. They pose a greater risk of major harms that cannot justify ethical equipoise, despite the apparent superiority in reduced short term surgical harms and lower cost.

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Jonathan Pugh
Oxford University


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