Low-Intensity Electric Impulses May Help Struggling Smokers Quit

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Treatments involving noninvasive low intensity electric or magnetic impulses may eventually help people give up harmful, addictive behaviors such as smoking and abusing alcohol. Marija Kovac/Stocksy United
  • In a small study, current smokers who received treatment involving noninvasive low intensity electric or magnetic impulses were twice as likely to abstain from cigarettes for up six months versus placebo.
  • Noninvasive brain stimulation (NIBS), has emerged as a new therapeutic option for several conditions including pain management, weight reduction, alcohol use disorder, and or depressive disorder.
  • The study’s authors pointed out early in the study that “tobacco use disorder is a major public health issue.”

A new study says smokers receiving noninvasive low intensity electric or magnetic impulses were twice as likely to go without cigarettes for three to six months than those receiving placebo treatment.

Researchers from the University of Dijon in France pooled data from seven previously published studies involving nearly 700 subjects. The results were first published on April 25 in the journal Addiction.

“The results appear to be robust, and we feel confident in suggesting that noninvasive brain stimulation is a technique of interest for both short-term and sustained smoking cessation,” lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Petit said in the press release.

The study pointed out that, in recent years, “a new non-pharmacological method, noninvasive brain stimulation (NIBS), has emerged as a new therapeutic option for several conditions including specific pain management, weight reduction, use disorder or depressive alcohol disorder. ”

It said the two most commonly used forms of NIBS are transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). The latter involves administering a low intensity direct electrical current through the subject’s brain using a pair of saline-soaked surface sponge electrodes placed on the patient’s scalp, modulating neuronal excitability.

TMS uses a metallic coil placed against the patient’s scalp. The coil generates magnetic pulses through the patient’s cranium to induce brief electric currents in the cortical tissue. Cortical neurons become depolarized and, depending on the frequency of the pulses, the excitability of the targeted cortical area is either increased or decreased.

“There is a lot of interest in brain stimulation, especially in addiction centers and mental health clinics,” Dr. Manish Mishra, the medical reviewer for Addiction Resource, told Healthline. “The paper shows promising results despite the small sample size.”

“Addiction to smoking is really difficult to get free from,” Mishra said. “It is good that the paper recognizes that the addiction stems from the primitive parts of the brain, instead of the thinking brain, showing us just how big their role is in a person’s day-to-day life.”

“Many people think that it is simply an issue of willpower,” Mishra told Healthline. “There are studies proving that, yes, but this is true for a small percentage of people. However, the majority of smokers need additional, external support.”

The study’s authors pointed out early in the study that “tobacco use disorder is a major public health issue.”

“Approximately 15.2 percent of the global population smoke every day, which represents more than 933 million people. Around the world, tobacco use is linked to 110.7 per 100 000 deaths annually and 170.9 million disability-adjusted life years, reflecting the importance of the comorbidities it induces. Tobacco use disorder is an addictive behavior, and it is difficult for users to stop using, as in other addictions.”

“Without medical support, the cessation rate is remarkably low, approximately 3–5 percent.”

Several other studies are underway, Petit said. “In the near future, NIBS [noninvasive brain stimulation] might be recognized as a promising new option for assisting individuals who wish to stop smoking,” he said in a journal news release.

Dr. James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, told Healthline both TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and forms of deep brain stimulation (DBS) look like “viable” treatments for certain forms of addiction.

“In particular, DBS has been, and is being studied for its therapeutic potential against addictive disorders, in that DBS can reduce the ‘addictive drive,’ as well as decrease the ‘reward effect’ of addictive behaviors,” Giordano told Healthline.

Giordano said “TMS tends to work best when the treatments are repeated: two to three treatments per week for three to four. Net effects in decreasing nicotine craving and desire for smoking can last months and can be important to total cessation.”

How the newer methods stack up to traditional methods of smoking cessation remains to be seen, Giordano told Healthline.

“There is not a single ‘best way’ to quit smoking,” he said. “Some people can give up tobacco products ‘cold turkey,’ with little to no medical assistance, while others struggle further, even with medical intervention.”

“What is important to understand is that nicotine addiction, like any form of addictive disorder, while having common neurological mechanisms, can differ greatly in its expression, severity, and resistance to treatment based upon variations in individual physiology, psychology, and even social influences Giordano said. “That is why it is best to develop a number of different therapeutic tools and methods, so as to establish more effective, efficient personalized and precision approaches to smoking cessation, and other addictive disorders.”

Mishra said the first step in any treatment is always the same process. From there, many avenues are available.

“In counseling, the awareness and admission that a person needs help is the first step of treatment,” Mishra told Healthline. “Behavior modification and CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] where a person understands and explores their triggers and reshaping them are proven to be effective. Pharmacological treatments can also be used to supplement the treatment.”

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