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Brain Stimulation Can Cut Cigarette Cravings, Study Says

Update Date: Apr 16, 2013 04:11 PM EDT

The leading cause of preventable deaths globally can be attributed to cigarette smoking, but quitting proves to be quite a difficult task with more than 90 percent of attempts to quit resulting in relapse.

Methods to quit smoking continue to grow using medications and techniques such as behavioral therapy, hypnosis and even acupuncture - all of which to attempt to alter brain function or behavior in some way.

Now a new study reports that a single 15-minute session of high frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) over the prefrontal cortex temporarily reduced cue-induced smoking craving in nicotine-dependent individuals, according to a press release. The study was published in Biological Psychiatry.

Nicotine cravings responsible for cigarette addiction are linked to the dopamine system and reward-related regions in the human brain. When smokers suffer nicotine withdrawal, there is a decreased activity in these regions, which causes cravings and is often the culprit that causes quitters to relapse.  

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is one of the critical reward-related regions in the brain, which can be targeted using TMS. The stimulation is a non-invasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells. Patients simply sit reclined in a chair, without the requirement of sedation or anesthesia, while the treatment is administered using coils placed near the forehead.

Dr. Xingbao Li and colleagues at Medical University of South Carolina studied cravings that were triggered by smoking cues in 16 nicotine-dependent volunteers. Each received one session of high frequency or sham repetitive TMS applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This served to filter out the effects of the real versus sham stimulation.

The researchers found that the craving induced by smoking cues was reduced after the participants had received real stimulation. The reduction in cue-induced cravings also had a positive correlation with the level of nicotine dependence, meaning the TMS-induced craving reductions were greater for those who had higher levels of nicotine intake.  

"One of the elegant aspects of this study is that it suggests that specific manipulations of particular brain circuits may help to protect smokers and possibly people with other addictions from relapsing," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

"While this was only a temporary effect, it raises the possibility that repeated TMS sessions might ultimately be used to help smokers quit smoking. TMS as used in this study is safe and is already FDA approved for treating depression. This finding opens the way for further exploration of the use of brain stimulation techniques in smoking cessation treatment," said Li.

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