A Little Brain Stimulation Helps Curb Smoking Triggers

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Feeling like you need to burn one down after a traffic jam or your boss chewing you out? Well, a new study suggests a little brain stimulation may help you stay away from those cancer sticks.

The research shows a single, 15-minute session of high frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) over the prefrontal cortex temporarily reduces those trigger cravings.

Nicotine activates the dopamine system and reward-related regions in the brain. Many methods to try and quit smoking, including medications, behavioral therapies, hypnosis and even acupuncture, all try and alter brain function. Nicotine withdrawal naturally results in decreased activity in certain brain regions which have been associated with craving, relapse and continued nicotine consumption.

One of the reward-related regions of the brain is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which can be targeted using a brain stimulation technology known as transcranial magnetic stimulation. Stimulating this region involves using magnetic fields, and it does not require sedation or anesthesia to do so.

The researchers examined cravings triggered by smoking cues in 16 smokers in the study who received one session each of high frequency or sham repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. This allowed the team to ferret out the effects of the real versus the sham stimulation.

They found craving induced smoking triggers were reduced after participants received real stimulation. They also said the reduction in triggers was positively correlated with levels of nicotine dependence, meaning the reductions were greater in people who smoked more often.

“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,” said 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.”

A study reported in 2010 claimed it is the habit, not addiction, which drives cigarette cravings. Researchers from this study wrote in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology that the intensity of cravings for cigarettes has more to do with psychosocial element of smoking, and less to do with physiological effects of nicotine as an addictive chemical.

“These findings might not be popular with advocates of the nicotine addiction theory, because they undermine the physiological role of nicotine and emphasize mind over matter when it comes to smoking,” said Dr. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University´s Department of Psychology.