How "Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation" Treats Addiction

Eric Sentell

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Funko Pop Captain Kirk from Star Trek: The Original SeriesDom Talbot on Unsplash

A U.S. Surgeon General report issued in 2016 estimated that 21 million Americans have a drug or alcohol addiction. Addiction to drugs or alcohol is more common than cancer.

Dr. Luigi Gallimberti treats addiction with "transcranial magnetic stimulation," a new technology with very promising results so far.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is part science-fiction and part stunning simplicity. It reminds me of the Star Trek gizmos Bones used.

TMS rests on the growing knowledge of the human brain and its functioning. Fran Smith of National Geographic explains:

After spending decades probing the brains of drug-loving lab animals and scanning the brains of human volunteers, scientists have developed a detailed picture of how addiction disrupts pathways and processes that underlie desire, habit formation, pleasure, learning, emotional regulation, and cognition.
Addiction causes hundreds of changes in brain anatomy, chemistry, and cell-to-cell signaling, including in the gaps between neurons called synapses, which are the molecular machinery for learning.
By taking advantage of the brain’s marvelous plasticity, addiction remolds neural circuits to assign supreme value to cocaine or heroin or gin, at the expense of other interests such as health, work, family, or life itself.

Contrary to popular belief, the human brain changes throughout life. It rewires itself in response to the environment.

For example, when you learn to ride a bike, you may struggle to figure out how to make your limbs work together and simultaneously balance your weight. The brain doesn't have the necessary neural pathways yet.

Once you learn how to ride a bike, you'll know how to ride for the rest of your life. You can hop on after 70 years of not riding and take off. Your brain "rewired" itself with the necessary neural pathways or "wiring."

Chemical substances change the brain's wiring. They activate certain neural pathways over and over. Addiction occurs when the repeatedly activated pathways become so ingrained that other pathways, like those that control cravings and impulses, become weak in comparison.

TMS intervenes in the brain's neural pathways. It uses electricity and a coiled wire to create a magnetic field that alters the patient's brain activity. Smith of National Geographic explains:

Our brains run on electrical impulses that zip among neurons with every thought and movement. Brain stimulation, which has been used for years to treat depression and migraines, taps that circuitry. The device is nothing but a coiled wire inside a wand. When electric current runs through it, the wand creates a magnetic pulse that alters electrical activity in the brain.

In other words, Dr. Luigi Gallimberti holds a strong magnet next to someone's head to treat addiction.

Gallimberti and two colleagues recruited a group of cocaine addicts to test the effectiveness of TMS compared to standard treatment. Sixteen of the addicts underwent TMS. Thirteen received standard care for addiction, including anti-depressants and anxiety medicine.

After one month, 11 of 16 people in the TMS group were off cocaine, compared to only 3 of 13 in the standard care group.

The magnetic field next to a TMS patient's head "rewires" the brain's neural pathways for regulating desires, cravings, and impulses. It helps people relearn how to not be addicted.

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