FRIDAY, April 26 (HealthDay News) -- Noninvasive stimulation of
an area of the brain linked to addiction seems to temporarily ease
smokers' cravings for nicotine, a preliminary study finds.
The technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS),
is already approved in the United States as a treatment for major
depression. In the new study, reported in a recent issue of the
Biological Psychiatry, researchers tested the effects of the
treatment on 16 smokers' craving for nicotine.
They found that in general, the smokers were yearning for
nicotine after seeing tempting images -- like a person lighting a
cigarette. But after 15 minutes of transcranial magnetic
stimulation, that craving dipped by almost 30 percent, on
But whether brain stimulation could boost smokers' willpower, or
ultimately help them quit, is anybody's guess.
"This is just a pilot study," said lead researcher Dr. Xingbao Li, an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston. "There's still a long way left to go."
During TMS, an electromagnetic coil is placed on the scalp to
create electric currents that stimulate cells in a specific area of
the brain. The therapy is approved for hard-to-treat cases of
depression that do not improve with standard treatments, like
antidepressants and talk therapy.
Experts think it works by boosting levels of mood-regulating
chemicals like dopamine. That may also be what's happening when it
comes to nicotine craving, Li explained, since dopamine levels dip
when people are in withdrawal from a drug.
But that's speculation for now, he said.
Another researcher who studies tobacco dependence said the
findings, while early, are "quite exciting."
If further research supports it, transcranial magnetic
stimulation could be one more tool in the smoking-cessation
toolbox, according to Christine Sheffer, an associate medical
professor of community health and social medicine at the City
College of New York.
Sheffer said she could foresee TMS being an option for smokers,
to be used along with behavioral counseling. "I think it is
important to stress that it is unlikely that any form of brain
stimulation -- or any treatment for that matter -- is going to
affect cessation without behavioral treatment," Sheffer said.
The findings are based on 16 smokers who had no designs on
quitting, but agreed to undergo transcranial magnetic stimulation.
First, they all viewed four collections of images, one of which was
aimed at boosting their nicotine craving -- like images of a smoker
lighting up. After seeing each collection, the smokers rated their
Afterward, the smokers sat through 15 minutes of the brain
stimulation treatment, then looked at the images again and rated
their desire for nicotine.
To help ensure that any effects of the transcranial magnetic
stimulation were real, Li's team also had each smoker go through
the whole process on a separate day, but with a "sham" version of
transcranial magnetic stimulation. The fake device looked and
sounded like the real thing, and also gave smokers the same
sensation in the scalp. But it didn't deliver the electrical
Overall, Li's team found, the real transcranial magnetic
stimulation reduced smokers' nicotine craving by close to 30
percent. Their cravings also declined after the phony device, but
the decline wasn't statistically significant.
"We don't know how significant this would be in real life," Li said.
The next step, he said, is to see whether a series of brain
stimulation treatments over a couple weeks has lasting effects on
smokers' cravings. The question of whether the brain stimulation
could ultimately affect quit rates will take larger, longer term
Based on what's known from depression treatment, transcranial
magnetic stimulation seems safe, Li said. The main side effects are
a short-lived headache and scalp discomfort. There also appears to
be a small risk of seizure, happening in fewer than one in 1,000
If transcranial magnetic stimulation were to become an option
for smokers, there would also be the issue of cost. When the
therapy is used for depression, one session typically costs around
Still, Sheffer said that the more options available to smokers,
the better. Right now, the approved treatments include nicotine
replacement products, like patches and gums, as well as the
prescription drugs varenicline (Chantix) and bupropion (Zyban and
Those options, Sheffer noted, are meant to be used along with
According to the American Lung Association, it takes the average
smoker five or six "serious attempts" to finally quit. So if one
approach fails, the group says, keep trying until you find the
combination of therapies that works.
The American Lung Association has advice on
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