Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS sends electromagnetic currents near the frontal lobe of the brain to stimulate brain activity. The medical community had used brain stimulation for years as an effective treatment for various psychiatric disorders, especially depressive and anxiety disorders.
As a non-invasive medical procedure that uses a magnetic field to stimulate nerve cells in the brain, it remains one of the safest therapies to treat various health problems. Due to its efficiency and effectiveness, recent studies had explored other possibilities of TMS therapy to other types of health problems like addiction.
The US Food and Drug Administration of FDA approved TMS as a safe and alternative treatment for depression. Today, more scientists explore the possibility of other medical uses of TMS.
The Study Behind the Theory
The results show a promising clinical data indicating that TMS can help people recover from addiction. Neuroscientists Antonello Bonci and Billy Chen from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in Baltimore spearheaded a study of rats trained to uncontrollably seek out cocaine. The rats are very much addicted that they tolerate electric shocks just to get their fixes. However, when researchers stimulated the rat’s brain using TMS, the animals were able to get out of their addiction.
In a journal published in Nature, Bonci and other scientists suggested that stimulating the prefrontal cortex can help addicts end their substance abuse. TMS can effectively target that area of the brain. As a non-invasive procedure stimulating neural activity, it might help with addiction.
There are several more studies conducted each year to support TMS therapy as a safe and effective alternative treatment method for various illnesses.
During TMS procedure, an electromagnetic coil is placed on the scalp near the forehead. The electromagnet delivers a magnetic pulse to stimulate nerve cells in the brain associated with controlling mood and depression – the two main emotional factor triggering addiction.
Repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (sometimes referred to as rTMS) uses a coil that emits a magnetic wave that passes through the skull. This triggers an electrical field that can alter brain cells activity. This varies from low frequency about 1 hertz to a high frequency of 10 to 20 Hertz. Health care professionals study the strength based on the patient’s motor threshold, which is the needed amount of current that makes fingers or leg muscles move when a TMS session starts.
This procedure had been proved effective for treating depression. TMS affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which affects the limbic system, an area of the brain associated with addiction. Stimulating and regulating brain nerve cells in these parts can help decrease symptoms of addiction.
The subcortical generally the medial prefrontal cortex, modulates addiction but needing deeper stimulation using rTMS. Studies show that using H-coil and higher frequency stimulation with 120% motor threshold will yield better results.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, TMS show positive promise as an alternative addiction treatment.
Digging Deeper into the Brain
Still, TMS research needs to dig deeper into the brain to targets more areas of the brain. Usually, doctors use “figure 8 coil” but others use “H coil” which can reach deeper parts of the brain.
Scientists have tested the theory on nicotine dependence, one of the most studied forms of addiction. On several research studies, stimulating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, (DLPFC) using “figure 8 coil” eventually decreases nicotine cravings. However, other studies show that nicotine dependence was totally eliminated. In alcohol dependence, TMS used in high-frequency targeting DLPFC showed promising effect.
Different studies consistently show TMS as a safe and effective tool for addiction treatment that carries no significant side effects.
In 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) in treating depression. But now, researchers are pushing boundaries to also use TMS for drug addiction.
How TMS Works
TMS is a non-invasive method of stimulating the brain’s nerve cells. In a typical TMS session, electromagnetic pulses are delivered on the patient’s scalp. These pulses increase neural activity in the brain. The frequency, duration, and pattern of the pulses varies depending on what is best for the patient. In most cases, TMS is used to treat mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety as well as to help those who have had a stroke or suffer from migraines.
Luigi Gallimberti, an Italian addiction physician has treated more than 300 cocaine addicts using TMS therapy. Gallimberti was inspired by a study of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The study shows how stimulating the brains of drug-addicted rats can stop the addiction.
Scientist genetically modified the brain of the rats to allow their neurons to be controlled. This makes them susceptible in getting addicted to cocaine. The rats seek out cocaine insistently to the point that they can withstand repeated electric shocks just to get to the drug.
Using TMS on Rats
When NIDA researchers stimulated the brain of these rates using impulse control, their urges significantly dropped or disappeared completely.
The co-authors of the study, Antonello Bonci, and Billy Chen suggested that stimulating the corresponding area in the human brain can stop addiction. The neuroscientists believed that targeting the prefrontal cortex of the human brain can offset addiction in people.
Bonci believed that the stimulation of the brain can be done using TMS. This gave Gallimbert the idea to use TMS as an addiction treatment.
TMS Treatment for Addiction
Gallimbert started out with 32 participants to test TMS therapy in treating cocaine addiction. His small study gave him positive results and he began offering TMS as a treatment. He offered TMS for about $118 per session and dropped the fee completely for people who couldn’t afford it.
Soon after his trials, Gallimbert and Bonci conducted another study. The TMS trials for 16 cocaine users in the second set of testing showed promising results.
Sparking a Trend
Gallimbert’s study sparked more types of research using TMS to treat people suffering from addiction. Currently, three studies are being conducted to fully understand the method on drug addiction.
Last year, the Medical University of South Carolina started their first randomized, double-blind trial of TMS on drug addiction. Another similar study in Mexico also started this year headed by the National Institute of Psychiatry.
By 2018, NIDA will conduct a pilot study concentrating TMS’s effectiveness on cocaine addiction in a controlled trial involving 60 cocaine users.
At least 13 million people worldwide suffer from cocaine addiction. Almost a million people are addicted to cocaine in the US alone. TMS therapy is already showing to be a potential cure to treat different kinds of substance abuse. If the current trials succeed, TMS would be beneficial to people with all kinds of addictions, particularly cocaine users.
Drug addiction remains one of the most difficult behaviors to remedy. Traditional treatments hold about 80% relapse rate. After more research, TMS is proving to offer cocaine users a very effective non-invasive treatment fairly soon.