Affecting more than 20 million people throughout the United States each year, substance addiction is a widespread illness that can be extremely challenging to treat. Varying in form, severity, and duration, substance use disorders impair a person’s health, social function, and ability to control substance use. Though hard to treat, a number of recent trials and studies have revealed transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may offer a new and effective treatment for certain cases of this complex disorder.
In the past, substance use disorders were mostly treated in specialty treatment programs, but in recent years there has been a shift towards treating these disorders within the general healthcare system, especially in cases that are mild or moderate in nature. Now, many medications and therapies such as psychotherapy and TMS are being prescribed and handled within the general healthcare system.
TMS Therapy for Addiction: The Research
Advances in neuroscience have provided insight into the ways our brains regulate pleasure and desire in relation to addiction, allowing us to see that overcoming addiction often requires a lot more than strong will. Typically, a variety of treatment methods are used, including medication, behavioral counseling, detox, and treatment for co-existing mental health issues. TMS is increasingly believed to be an effective therapy for patients with substance use addiction, especially if it is used in combination with other forms of treatment.
Essentially, TMS in a noninvasive therapy that works by stimulating nerve cells in a patient’s prefrontal cortex with electromagnetic pulses. Commonly used to treat depression, it is believed that TMS is also an effective way to quell addiction.
TMS has been thought to be a possible treatment for various forms of addiction since at least 2009. Here are a few recent examples where TMS therapy has proven effective in treating various forms of addiction.
- Italian psychiatrist Luigi Gallimberti started using TMS therapy in his addiction treatment clinic after becoming frustrated in typical addiction treatments. He heard about research in the field of addiction science showing that stimulating the prefrontal cortex could be effective in minimizing the urge to get high for an addict. This led him to the belief that TMS therapy could be a way of stimulating the brain in an addict to minimize to dampen their addiction. In one study involving 32 cocaine addicted individuals, 11 out of 16 individuals in the treatment group were drug free after receiving one month of TMS therapy, whereas only three out of 11 individuals in the control group (who received a more standard care regimen of medication) were drug free. Published in January 2016, this was among the earliest studies to suggest the efficacy of TMS therapy in cocaine use disorder. Gallimberti and his colleagues have since treated hundreds of people with cocaine addiction and plan to conduct larger studies.
- Another U.S.-based study from earlier in 2017 showed that five consecutive daily sessions of TMS treatment reduced cravings and symptoms of depression in individuals with substance addiction. Including just eight patients, the study’s sample size was small, but illustrated the potential of TMS as a therapy for addiction and depression.
- More recently, neurobiologist Colleen Hanlon began a randomized, double-blind trial to look at TMS therapy as a treatment for cocaine addiction. She has conducted a number of studies involving TMS therapy as a treatment for addiction in alcohol and cocaine users.
- At the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), researchers are conducting a pilot study on the use of TMS for cocaine addiction, and they plan to begin a larger controlled trial next year.
- Back in 2009, researchers found that repetitive daily TMS therapy sessions over the course of 10 days reduced nicotine dependence and cigarette consumption. The effects of treatment did dissipate as time went on though.
- In 2011, results of a study in Biological Psychiatry showed that TMS is capable of moderating cravings in individuals with cigarette addiction. The study involved 15 individuals.
- In a 2010 study published in the journal Addiction, repetitive TMS therapy was found to induce anticraving effects in individuals with alcohol dependence, illustrating the potential for TMS as an effective treatment strategy for alcohol dependence.
While research for TMS therapy treating substance abuse is promising it is not currently FDA approved.