Researchers are attempting to tackle the problem of addiction using transcranial magnetic brain stimulation, which can reduce how ‘excited’ the brain becomes in response to cues. In the case of chronic alcohol users, such a cue could be the sight of a bottle of spirits, which could trigger their addiction.

While the exact causes of drug addiction are not fully understood, it is known that over time drug abuse triggers changes in the brain that perpetuate the addiction cycle. With drug addiction affecting 5.4% of the population worldwide, a means of halting this cycle is essential for effective treatment.

In drug addiction the brain’s reward-processing circuits are thrown off balance because of the excessive amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is associated with experiencing pleasure and plays a crucial role in reward-mediated motivation and learning. When the brain gets too much dopamine, it learns to continue to search for that ‘high’. However, researchers have discovered that a non-invasive brain stimulation technique can blunt the brain’s response to the appeal of alcohol and cocaine in chronic users.

Reporting in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston used transcranial magnetic stimulation to target the ventromedial prefrontal cortex [1]. This is the area of the brain responsible for addiction and reward-processing.

Following stimulation, the researchers took scans of the participants’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess their response to drug cues. The result was significantly reduced brain reactivity to triggers.

The report’s senior author, Colleen Hanlon, said: “These results have a tremendous potential to impact both basic discovery neuroscience as well as targeted clinical treatment development for substance dependence”.

[1] Kearney-Ramos TE, Dowdle LT, Lench DH et al. Transdiagnostic effects of ventromedial prefrontal cortex transcranial magnetic stimulation on cue reactivity: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2018.03.016

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