Simple moments like these are something Dr. Frank Plummer says he’ll never take for granted. For over the past decade he has fought alcohol use disorder. Similar to
some Canadians, he was high-functioning. It started when he was pioneering
research in Kenya around the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. So I was constantly
writing then you’re dealing with patients, you’re dealing with death, and
you’re dealing with some of the pressures of living in Nairobi. So yeah, it
was pretty stressful. You know, I used whiskey to kind of relax and maybe five
or six drinks a day, in the evenings. After returning to Canada,
Frank continued his world-renowned scientific leadership and work
contributing to Canada’s Ebola vaccine. Publicly the accolades poured in,
including receiving the Order of Canada. Privately, his drinking escalated to
about 20 ounces of scotch a night. I was like a quiet drunk, sit in the corner and think. He says the true scope of his drinking hit him after needing a liver
transplant but despite various attempts at rehab and other treatments nothing
worked. Frank turned to what he knew best: science. He started to research his own
condition. That’s when one of his doctors told him about a groundbreaking new
trial at Sunnybrook. In 2018, Frank agreed to be patient one in a North American
first surgical trial using deep brain stimulation or DBS for
treatment-resistant alcohol use disorder, a condition that affects about 14
percent of Canadians. Guided by his brain images, Sunnybrook surgeons targeted
specific areas in his brain with two electrodes…. and talk to him throughout to make sure they hit their
mark. Principal investigator Dr. Nir Lipsman says these electrodes are
controlled by a pacemaker-like device that sends electrical stimulation to the
brain to try and ease symptoms and cravings. He says exploring new options is critical for this condition, knowing that
about 75% of patients will relapse with traditional treatments. This study, which
will include six patients, is testing how safe and effective DBS is. The way that I
describe it to patients is that it’s not a light switch, it’s more like a dimmer and it
happens over time. Weeks and months, really, to start detecting changes. Frank says that’s exactly what happened. Yeah, I drink but just in moderation and I
don’t have the craving that I used to have. His wife Joe says DBS has been
different from other treatments because it addresses treatment-resistant alcohol
use disorder as a brain condition rather than an issue around executive function
and willpower. It also provides clinical and neuroscience insight to the inner
workings of brain function and impairment. I think that understanding
that distinction between brain health and mental health is really really
important as we go forward to address addictions. Now Frank continues to
undergo regular follow-up testing at Sunnybrook. He says he’s gone from a
place of waiting to die to living more fully in every aspect, busy working on a
promising HIV vaccine candidate and reconnecting with friends and family. You know the procedure has transformed me. It’s given me my life back. It’s one of
the best things I’ve ever done. He says he hopes sharing his story will
help destigmatize the conversation about alcohol use disorder, as well as
improve the science and understanding around it. With Sunnyview, I’m Monica Matys.

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