When willpower doesn't
work, smokers who want to quit may have a new tool someday: magnetic brain
A study of 115 smokers
found that 13 sessions of the treatment over three weeks helped some heavy
smokers quit for as long as six months.
technique, called repeated high-frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation,
sends electric impulses to the brain. It is sometimes used to treat depression.
stimulation can reduce nicotine craving and smoking," said lead researcher
Abraham Zangen, an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in
"If you stimulate
regions in the brain that are associated with craving for drugs, you can change
the circuitry in the brain that mediates this dependence and eventually reduce
smoking," he said. "And many of those treated stop smoking."
A pack a day
The study participants
smoked at least a pack a day and had failed at least two previous attempts to
quit, said Zangen, who has a financial interest in the equipment used in the
The researchers divided the
participants into three groups. One group received high-frequency brain
stimulation, another low-frequency stimulation, and the third received a phony
treatment. The groups were further divided into those who saw a visual cue – a
picture of a lit cigarette – just before stimulation and those who didn't.
The idea of the cue is to
make sure attention is directed at smoking and not some other craving, Zangen
After 13 treatments, those
who received the highest level of stimulation plus the visual cue had the best
results – 44% of them had quit. After six months, one-third of this group were
still not smoking compared to 28% of those who weren't shown the visual cue
The results of the study
were scheduled for presentation at the annual meeting of the Society
for Neuroscience in San Diego.
Although magnetic brain stimulation
is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating depression, it
is not yet approved for helping people quit smoking, Zangen said.
Dr Alan Manevitz, a
clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said, "It's
a very effective treatment for depression and anxiety."
Manevitz thinks using it to
help people stop smoking makes sense. Other studies, he noted, have found that
stimulating an area of the brain called the insula can reduce the desire to
Not a simple procedure
stimulation to other smoking cessation methods like nicotine substitution might
make it even more effective," he said.
When used for depression,
magnetic brain stimulation costs from $300 to $350 a session, and the treatment
may not be covered by insurance, Manevitz said.
For the treatments,
participants wear a helmet fitted with coils that deliver magnetic stimulation
to the areas of the brain – the prefrontal cortex and the insula – associated
with nicotine addiction.
Dan Jacobsen, from the Centre
for Tobacco Control at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, New York, thinks
the idea is interesting but he doesn't see this becoming a viable treatment
option anytime soon.
"This treatment is not
a simple procedure," he noted. And the six-month results weren't as good
as the success rates for other treatments, including medication and nicotine
replacement, combined with behavioural components, he said.
Side effects from the
treatment were mild and included headaches or muscle twitching. These symptoms
went away with continued treatment, Zangen said. One potentially serious but
rare side effect is that brain stimulation can induce a seizure, especially in
those prone to epilepsy, he noted.
Data and conclusions
presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a
peer-reviewed medical journal.
To find out more about
quitting smoking, visit the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.