Nicotine patches, hypnosis, anti-addiction tablets: Medicinal and psychotherapeutic methods are two important strategies in medicine to make it possible and bearable for smokers to quit their addiction. A study has now confirmed a third and completely different method: magnetic stimulation of certain brain regions that play a role in addictions.
More than 120,000 people die in Germany every year from the health effects of tobacco smoking. If you want to quit smoking – medicine and psychology support you with drug or behavioral approaches. The effectiveness of a third – and completely different – treatment method for the treatment of tobacco addiction has now been confirmed in an international study: it is called “repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation” (rTMS). Within six weeks, the subjects’ abstinence rates doubled compared to the placebo group.
“This is a remarkable result in addition to the previous treatment options for tobacco addiction,” says Walter Paulus from the German Society for Clinical Neurophysiology and Functional Imaging (DGKN) about the results of the study. All patients in the current study had at least one unsuccessful attempt to quit smoking. For two thirds of the participants, three or more attempts had failed.
Combination of magnetic stimulation and short psychotherapeutic interventions
“A special feature of the study is that, in addition to this special form of rTMS, short behavior therapy interventions were also used,” explains Frank Padberg from the Psychiatric University Hospital in Munich. Immediately before the treatment, addiction-specific symptoms were provoked for five minutes: The study participants were asked to imagine the triggers of their addiction cravings and were confronted with an audio file and pictures about smoking. Then the brain stimulation took place (in each session 60 units of three seconds each with 30 pulses each) by means of a magnetic coil that was placed on the outside of the head in selected brain regions. After the stimulation, a motivational talk was held as a two-minute short intervention.
Abstinence control by urine sample
In the first three weeks, the treatment took place every working day, in the following 3 weeks once a week. After 18 weeks, 19 percent of the group of those treated with rTMS had managed, according to the questionnaire, not to smoke for at least 4 weeks. The researchers were able to check and confirm this using urine samples for nicotine breakdown products. In the comparison group, the proportion was only 8 percent. After the first six weeks, 28 percent of those treated with rTMS were able to get rid of cigarettes, compared to only 11 percent in the placebo group. On average, patients in the treatment group smoked fewer cigarettes and had decreased craving for them.
What exactly is “transcranial magnetic stimulation”?
Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a technology that uses strong magnetic fields to both stimulate and inhibit areas of the brain. The magnetic effect occurs non-invasively from the outside. The word “transcranial” from Latin can be translated as “through the skull”. So far, the method has been used in medicine in particular for the treatment of neurological diseases such as tinnitus, epilepsy or Parkinson’s, in psychiatry for the treatment of affective disorders, especially against depression.
Magnetic stimulation against tobacco addiction: Already approved in the USA
For years there has been increasing evidence that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation could also play a role in the treatment of addictive diseases in addition to the treatment of other psychiatric conditions. The study, which has now been published in the specialist journal “World Psychiatry”, was the first to demonstrate its effectiveness in treating tobacco addiction in a larger research project (262 test subjects). In the US, these research results have already led to the approval of rTMS for the treatment of smokers.