Is Brain Stimulation the Solution to Addiction

Brain stimulation

Drug addiction is a chronic disease that affects a little over five percent of the population. Several different addiction treatment models such as brain stimulation may have many factors in common. However, each individual should have a plan designed specifically for them by a healthcare professional. Each person going through addiction will be on their own unique path, so each plan should be individualized in order to be effective. Treatment programs each have their own advantages and disadvantages when you are comparing them against each other. A guided group therapy program may not work for everyone, just like access to certain medications may not be available.

Addiction treatment is always changing and improving. Treatments like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS, allow patients to receive noninvasive treatment that may reduce the need for more medication. Colleen Hanlon, Ph.D. stated, “…non-invasive brain stimulation technique may be the first tool available to fill this critical void in addiction treatment development”. This breakthrough predicts that researchers will be able to reduce how the brain reacts to cocaine and alcohol, although only a few clinical trials have been performed.

What is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

has actually been used for helping to treat depression, showing positive results. It is a noninvasive procedure where an electromagnet is placed against a patient’s head. TMS is a new concept in treating alcohol and other substance use disorders. While it is not completely understood how TMS induces long-term changes in the brain’s neurons, it is hypothesized that it will be effective in treating substance use disorders because of its effectiveness in treating those with depression.

Studies supporting the positive effects of TMS are those that have been done on rodents. Researchers introduced the rodents to cocaine, recording how they reacted. They then removed the cocaine from the rodents’ environment. Rats showed that they would compulsively seek out the cocaine. However, when researchers increased activity in the cortex of their brain, the rodents ceased seeking out the cocaine.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is in the preliminary phase of being ready to be released to control groups for study. Researchers will then be able to study the effects it has on the human brain in relation to drug and alcohol addiction. While TMS is not used currently to treat substance use disorders directly, it can help treat the symptoms surrounding the disease. TMS has been shown to help with mood control, as well as helping a patient overcome their cravings.

How Does It Work?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is successful in treating depression and has been hypothesized that it will do well at treating drug and alcohol addiction because it rewires the neurons responsible for mood control. TMS works by activating a part of the brain that the patient is not really using or has become dormant. Deciding the strength of the pulse received by the patient will always be determined by a medical professional. To determine how much a patient can receive in terms of electromagnetic pulses relies on their motor control.

The brain gets too much dopamine from drugs and your brain will continually search for that same feeling. This elevated brain activity is referred to as cue activity. This is what makes addiction a brain disease. TMS is the first considered treatment option that is directly aimed at the brain’s neurons to help treat the condition. TMS allows researchers and medical professionals to target key areas of the brain. The region that would be targeting for addiction is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

TMS is used repeatedly in short pulses, depending on your threshold for motor control. The electromagnet is placed on the patient’s head, near their hairline. A coil generates a magnetic field, which passes through your skull. This field is what alters the brain’s neurons. The frequency of this activity can be set to fast or slow. The fast frequency can go up to 20 Hertz and the slow frequency can go all the way down to 1 Hertz. When studying addiction, a coil is used that cannot necessarily reach the deeper parts of the brain and can reach only the superficial regions of the cortex. However, this allows researchers to better target the areas of the brain. Dependence on nicotine has been studied using this coil, which reduces cravings for cigarettes.

In regard to alcohol use disorders, the studies have focused on cravings only. The studies have shown mixed results, but none have involved trials investigating alcohol consumption. These studies involved a high frequency to help target the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Using the deeper, H coil, has shown more positive results. However, these trials are very limited.


The DLPFC, also known as the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is located on the left side of the brain. This is the part of the brain that helps to overcome impulses. It is believed that people experiencing addiction have an underactive DLPFC. Rapid pulses using TMS work to reactivate this region of the brain. However, only small trials have investigated this theory.

Potential Side Effects Of TMS

Since Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is considered a fairly new treatment option, especially in regard to substance use disorders, there have not been many studies made on the long term effects that could occur. While TMS would give patients the freedom to not have to be on additional medication and would help with withdrawal symptoms, it still is not quite clear why TMS works the way it does. Common side effects of TMS treatment are:

  • Headaches
  • Tingling of muscles
  • Dizziness

A patient experiencing serious side effects is very rare, but still possible. Potentially dangerous side effects that could occur include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures

The studies surrounding TMS offers patients struggling with addiction and their loved ones hope for the future. However, it may take years before TMS is regarded as a treatment option. The good news is there is growing interesting regarding the successfulness of TMS in treating depression and it’s potential to work similarly in those fighting addictions. It has the advantage of being minimally invasive, adjustable, and could help patients not have to take additional medication to help with withdrawal symptoms.

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, the best course of action is to seek treatment. It is still regarded in the medical community that a blended treatment plan is the best option for patients. A medical professional can help determine an individualized plan to help you or your loved one get on the road to recovery and start a new chapter.