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Electromagnetic Brain Stimulation for Addiction

Sep 10, 2008
Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a non-invasive way of stimulating many different areas of the brain. Being addicted to drugs has a considerable toll on the individual. Now researchers are begining to use transcranial magnetic stimulation as a treatment for people who are addicted to various drugs. Depression and addiction often overlap on both the symptomatic and chemical level. States of both depression and addiction often share anhedonia the inability to experience pleasure. The reward related regions of the brain are dysregulated in both of these disorders, leaving patients demotivated and unable to really feel anything.

Not only is reward functioning dysfunctional in addiction, but executive functions become problematic. Executive functions include overall ability to properly function in society. These functions include your concentration and motivation. Using TMS, scientists may be able to improve a person's executive functioning by activating frontal areas of the brain. Scientists may also be able to treat both addiction and depression by targeting similar reward related areas with TMS due to the overlap between the two disorders. One could imagine a future where non-invasive stimulation of reward related regions becomes the norm.

In a recent study, researchers investigated the efficacy of a single session of high frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation TMS to see if it could reduce cocaine craving in people addicted to cocaine. A total of six patients had 10 Hz TMS over both the left and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The researchers found that stimulating the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex significantly reduced cocaine craving over time. This shows that in the future TMS may be increasingly used as a new treatment modality for a variety of different addictions. It may be able to improve depression symptoms as well among those people.

The company Brainsway is testing their new deep TMS device to target deeper brain areas that are related to the reward system. Researchers in the past have discovered that direct electrical stimulation of a brain area called the nucleus accumbens is rewarding. In both human and animal subjects, electrodes have actually been implanted directly within this brain region. However, this requires a person to undergo risky brain surgery. With deep TMS, psychiatrists may be able to electrically stimulate a person's nucleus accumbens non-invasively. This would be a way to improve a person's normal capacity for pleasure.

Using transcranial magnetic stimulation as a treatment for addiction brings up all sorts of fascinating questions. How do you calibrate the hedonic setpoint on a person so as to dole out their pleasure. Will people become addicted to getting their pleasure centers stimulated with electromagnetism. Will we have junkies who want to get their next transcranial magnetic stimulation fix. Or will scientists be able to increase the capacity for reward while reducing the propensity to seek out that reward excessively. These are not easy questions to answer but I think they are ones that we are going to have to face, sooner rather than later. However, TMS definitely shows a lot of promise for disorders of addiction.
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