Quitting smoking is hard because your brain has to get used to not having nicotine around.
When you’re a smoker, nicotine triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine in your brain. But over time, nicotine changes how your brain works. Suddenly, it seems like you need nicotine just to feel okay. Then when you stop smoking, your brain gets irritated and you might feel anxious or upset.
Researchers have developed a potential treatment for nicotine dependence, which involves using something called non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS). In a nutshell, NIBS uses electromagnetic energy to alter brain activity. This is often referred to as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
Despite its sci-fi-sounding name, TMS isn’t scary or invasive. Exactly how it works biologically isn’t fully understood, but researchers think that repeated magnetic pulses similar in strength to an MRI increase blood flow in certain areas, increasing the brain’s plasticity (Rizvi, 2019).
This new study on brain stimulation and smoking looked at 12 studies that involved 710 participants with nicotine dependence. The greatest reduction in smoking frequency occurred after magnetic stimulation of an area called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).
Researchers suggest stimulating this area increases dopamine release, helping people cope with cravings and withdrawal symptoms when they quit smoking.
Even though the results sound promising, magnetic brain stimulation isn’t a standard treatment for smoking cessation. TMS itself isn’t new and has proven to be an effective alternative for people with severe depression who don’t respond to psychotherapy or medication.
- Ping-Tao Tseng, Jia-Shyun Jeng. Efficacy of non-invasive brain stimulation interventions in reducing smoking frequency in patients with nicotine dependence: a systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (2021). Addiction. Doi: 10.1111/add.15624 Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/add.15624