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Smoking Cessation Health Center

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Nicotine Craving May Be Temporarily Eased by This

Early study tested the noninvasive treatment on smokers


The findings are based on 16 smokers who had no designs on quitting, but agreed to undergo transcranial magnetic stimulation. First, they all viewed four collections of images, one of which was aimed at boosting their nicotine craving -- like images of a smoker lighting up. After seeing each collection, the smokers rated their nicotine craving.

Afterward, the smokers sat through 15 minutes of the brain stimulation treatment, then looked at the images again and rated their desire for nicotine.

To help ensure that any effects of the transcranial magnetic stimulation were real, Li's team also had each smoker go through the whole process on a separate day, but with a "sham" version of transcranial magnetic stimulation. The fake device looked and sounded like the real thing, and also gave smokers the same sensation in the scalp. But it didn't deliver the electrical current.

Overall, Li's team found, the real transcranial magnetic stimulation reduced smokers' nicotine craving by close to 30 percent. Their cravings also declined after the phony device, but the decline wasn't statistically significant.

"We don't know how significant this would be in real life," Li said.

The next step, he said, is to see whether a series of brain stimulation treatments over a couple weeks has lasting effects on smokers' cravings. The question of whether the brain stimulation could ultimately affect quit rates will take larger, longer term studies.

Based on what's known from depression treatment, transcranial magnetic stimulation seems safe, Li said. The main side effects are a short-lived headache and scalp discomfort. There also appears to be a small risk of seizure, happening in fewer than one in 1,000 patients.

If transcranial magnetic stimulation were to become an option for smokers, there would also be the issue of cost. When the therapy is used for depression, one session typically costs around $300.

Still, Sheffer said that the more options available to smokers, the better. Right now, the approved treatments include nicotine replacement products, like patches and gums, as well as the prescription drugs varenicline (Chantix) and bupropion (Zyban and generics).

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