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Stimulating Brain Blunts Cigarette Craving

A woman smokes a cigarette.
Researchers say that stimulating a portion of the brain with magnetic fields temporarily reduces the craving for cigarettes felt by smokers.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide ... more than five million smoking-related deaths each year. Smoking can cause cancer, heart disease, stroke and lung diseases.

It is also addictive, so kicking the habit is difficult. Smokers can try medications, behavior modification, hypnosis and acupunture... but more than 90 percent of those efforts fail. The nicotine in tobacco activates the brain's pleasure centers, and the decreased activity caused by nicotine withdrawal prompts many smokers to light up again.

Dr. Xingbao Li and colleagues at Medical University of South Carolina focused on the prefrontal cortex -- one of the regions of the brain related to rewards and feelings of pleasure. Nicotine-dependent volunteers received transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, a non-invasive procedure already used to treat depression, that uses highly focused magnetic pulses to activate nerve cells.

One 15-minute treatment session reduced the cravings smokers usually felt when they saw or thought about cigarettes. The higher their level of nicotine use, the greater the reduction in their craving.

While noting that the effect was only temporary, Li says "it raises the possibility that repeated sessions might ultimately be used to help smokers quit smoking." His study is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.