This is Your Brain on Electricity

Episode Overview

Many of you probably remember the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign— the classic fried egg commercial used to advocate against narcotic use. Like the campaign, on this Vital Spark episode, Host Daniel Litwin joins Dr. Navid Khodaparast, chief science officer of Spark Biomedical, to highlight the specific damage opioid use can have on the brain and Spark’s cutting-edge technology behind solving the world’s opioid addiction crisis— starting with, solving opioid withdrawal. But instead of eggs and a pan, today we’re talking reward systems, dopamine, opioid hijacking, tolerance, and wearable neurostimulation treatment. Any questions?

“When you consider reward in relation to eating and having sex, the reasons why you eat is to keep your body alive. In terms of sex and procreation, this is extremely important for our species to stay alive. So, the system of reward in the brain is a survival function, and it is primarily driven by one specific neurochemical called dopamine,” Dr. Khodaparast explained.


In a healthy brain, as you start introducing substances of abuse like opioids, they bind directly to the opioid receptor in the brain. The consequence of that binding is that the receptor releases dopamine, the same kind of reward you get for procreating or eating.

Opioid Hijacking

As you start taking external or exogenous opioids, you begin replacing the need for natural, internally produced dopamine. Essentially, you create your own dopamine surges using external opioids—a process called opioid hijacking.

Opioid Tolerance

The longer opioids are taken, the more dependent the brain becomes on them. Although there is euphoria in the beginning stages, your brain will stop producing as much dopamine as you continue to take opioids for more extended periods. This is what’s called tolerance. At some point, there aren’t enough drugs or substances of abuse that you can take to get pleasure anymore. At that point, you’re taking these substances primarily to function.

Traditional opioid addiction treatment methods primarily focus on substitution treatments like buprenorphine, Suboxone, and methadone. Non-opioid options generally focus on comfort medications to help endure the withdrawal symptoms. Beyond the drug-related remedies, the only drug-free option has been abstinence and cold turkey.

Wearable Neurostimulation

Spark’s FDA-cleared wearable device called the Sparrow Therapy System offers providers and patients a drug-free withdrawal treatment option where none existed before. Treatment is provided via Transcutaneous Auricular Neurostimulation (tAN®). It plays a fantastic role in being able to help patients get to an opioid antagonist medication or transition patients off other opioid-based detox treatment medication.

Here’s how it works. The Sparrow Therapy System stimulates nerves that surface on and around your ear, activating both a branch of the trigeminal and the Vagus nerves. When you activate these nerves, Spark’s theory, currently in clinical trial testing, is that it releases endogenous (natural) opioids, aka endorphins, and fills the vacant opioid receptors. So, in a patient coming off heroin, who will experience withdrawal within six to 12 hours after their last dose, Sparrow neurostimulation intervenes to fill those receptors and reduce the amount of withdrawal within the first 30 to 60 minutes of treatment. It helps patients mitigate or reduce withdrawal and allows patients to more comfortably move on to the critical work of long-term addiction treatment.

For more information on this topic, follow Spark Biomedical’s LinkedIn account and visit sparkbiomedical.com. Or subscribe and tune in to “Vital Spark,” a Spark Biomedical podcast.

Daniel Litwin

Contributor: Dr. Navid Khodaparast


About Our Guest

Dr. Khodaparast has a Ph.D. in Neurophysiology that focused on using vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) to promote innate restorative brain plasticity and treat neurological disease. His research is considered foundational for the principle of target neuroplasticity training and has led to multiple VNS clinical trials for stroke rehabilitation. Dr. Khodaparast has over 10 years’ experience in translating neuromodulatory therapies to treat neurological and psychiatric disorders. He is a scientifically driven entrepreneur, has led clinical research at multiple early stage medical device companies involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Cardiac Disease.

Don't miss out. Subscribe to be alerted to future episodes and special events.

Download the Updated Clinical Trial Whitepaper
Download Today