Heavy smokers could be helped to kick the habit by having their brains zapped with electromagnetic pulses, new research suggests.
Repeated use of a high frequency magnet to stimulate the brain helps some smokers quit for up to six months after treatment, an Israeli study found.
The smokers had already tried a range of treatments, from patches to psychotherapy, raising hopes that brain stimulation could be an effective alternative for those who had so far failed to kick the habit.
Abraham Zangen of Ben Gurion University told the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, California, that more than half the smokers given high-frequency magnetic pulses quit.
More than a third were still abstaining six months on.
'Our research shows us that we may actually be able to undo some of the changes to the brain caused by chronic smoking,' said Dr Zangen.
'We know that many smokers want to quit or smoke less and this could help put a dent in the number one cause of preventable deaths.'
Dr Zangen’s team recruited 115 heavy smokers aged between 21 and 70 who were interested in quitting but who had failed in doing so on at least two previous attempts.
They then split the smokers into three groups, giving them either high frequency repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS), low frequency rTMS, or placebo treatment for 13 days.
Repeated high frequency Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) is a non-invasive technique that uses magnetic fields to stimulate large areas of neurons in the brain.
The researchers focused on stimulating the prefrontal cortex and the insula, which are the two brain areas associated with nicotine addiction.
Before each session, Dr Zangen got one of his PhD students to light a cigarette and take a drag in front of half the smokers in each group to awaken their cravings.
This was to make sure the smokers’ attention was directed at their addiction and not some other craving, said Dr Zangen.
The results were striking. Nearly half - 44 per cent - of the smokers who received the cue before their rTMS session gave up immediately after the 13-day course, with 33 per cent still of the smokes six months later.
Overall, participants who received high frequency rTMS smoked less and were more likely to quit, with success rates four times that of the low frequency group and more than six times greater than the placebo group.
Dr Zangen’s team are now planning a much larger trial involving smokers in several countries, which is set to start in the next few months.
He told The Guardian: ‘It’s quite easy to quit for a few days, or even for a few weeks, but if we can help people quit for more than three months, then they are actually quite unlikely to relapse later on.’
Dr Zanger did reveal that he has a financial interest in the company which provided the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation equipment used in the study.