Dr. Kim Burchiel thinks he can cure obesity—with brain surgery.
Government statistics estimate that obesity affects more than a third of American adults, leading to healthcare costs in the billions of dollars.
And those with the condition have few options for treatment. Currently, the only procedure proven to be effective is bariatric surgery.
"Eating less and moving more may be great advice for your health, but it's not going to cure obesity," Burchiel said. "The brain simply hasn't accommodated to our new environment."
Speaking Tuesday at TechfestNW, Burchiel, a neurosurgeon at OHSU, discussed his vision for a new treatment based on electrodes implanted in the brain.
It may sound like science fiction. But devices like what Burchiel described have been used for decades to treat Parkinson's, epilepsy, and essential tremor, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary shaking.
In the procedure, called deep brain stimulation, a pacemaker-like device in the patient's chest is attached to electrodes implanted in the brain, which deliver harmless electrical impulses to specific neural regions.
The operation, Burchiel said, is not as invasive as it seems. "It's almost an outpatient procedure," he said.
Burchiel's proposed therapy would involve electrical stimulation of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates hormone activity. This would fight obesity by causing hormones to trigger the burning of fat tissue.
"We are very optimistic based on our laboratory work," Burchiel said.
While the technology may be promising, Burchiel cautions it's still a long way out.
"The regulatory hoops are daunting," he said. "You're talking about an eight to ten year process."
And the device itself would cost an estimated $120,000.
But Burchiel said a technological solution to the problem is long overdue.
"The software for fat metabolism hasn't been updated," Burchiel said.
"We haven't gotten to 2.0 yet. We're still working at 1.0."