A research study found that stimulating the brain using magnetic currents can significantly reduce a smoker’s urge to light up.
During the study, which was conducted in Israel, researchers developed a special helmet-like device for deep stimulation of specific parts of the brain. The device sends magnetic currents to the brain that stimulate the nervous system while the patients are entirely conscious.
The study was led by Prof. Abraham Zangen, head of the Brain and Behavior Laboratory at the department of Human Sciences at Ben Gurion University, along with Dr. Limor Dinur Klein from Tel Aviv University and Prof. Moshe Kotler, head of the Psychiatric Union in Israel.
Prof. Zangen said: “This is just the interim analysis but it is promising. Forty percent of the subjects in this subgroup quit smoking and we will continue the research in the near future.” According to Zangen, the combination of stimulation at high frequency and cue presentation—providing a signal that reminds the person of something to provoke the craving circuitry in the brain—causes a significant reduction in cigarette consumption.
15 minute sessions
The participants in the study all smoked at least 20 cigarettes per day and all already attempted to quit smoking in the past using other methods. They were invited for 13 sessions of 15 minutes each, over a period of three weeks.
“We decided to conduct the research because addiction is a major health problem. I have been studying the basic mechanisms of addiction in animals for 10 years and identified neurochemical alterations in specific brain regions associated with the development of addiction. Moreover, we found that electrical stimulation for cocaine addiction of specific brain regions in animals can reduce drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior.”
Zangen says that the study performed on animals was based on implanted electrodes and required translation to human application. The result was the special helmet that was developed for non-surgical stimulation of deep brain regions in humans. “We started with nicotine addiction because it is more common and easier to recruit participants for the initial study,” he says.
The researchers have already completed one study using standard transcranial magnetic stimulation coils in smokers. Its initial results, which were published in the journal Addiction in 2009, were not satisfactory. According to Zangen, many people started smoking less, but none of them really quit smoking completely.
“The current study utilizes the special electromagnetic coils for deeper stimulation of the relevant brain regions associated with the craving circuitry in the brain. The results are much more promising,” he says.
He adds: “The previous technology, termed ‘standard TMS’, can induce effective fields up to one to two centimeters in the brain, while the new technology we have developed, termed ‘deep TMS’, can induce effective fields up to five centimeters in the brain.”
During the treatment, some participants experienced moderate headaches, especially in the first sessions. But Zangen assures that this is transient, and lasts only up to a half hour after the treatment.
According to Zangen, this research is a breakthrough that can affect other fields too.
The study shows that multiple sessions of electromagnetic stimulation of the brain can make long-term changes in neural networks that mediate pathological behavior. Moreover, it shows that psychological activation of the relevant circuitry in the brain combined with the physical electromagnetic stimulation provides better results.
Or Shmueli is a health writer for Israeli innovation news website, www.nocamels.com. Or is currently getting her BA in Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
Editor: Lara C.
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