The treatments consisted of a real stimulation session along with a fake one that simply simulated TMS without actually stimulating the brain, with all subjects’ brains imaged before and after. The team found that when both groups were shown images of their respective cues, reactivity was significantly reduced following the single TMS session.
While they have uncovered a potential one-off neural mechanism for substance use, whether the TMS treatment works on a larger scale and actually lowers consumption of drugs and alcohol in a meaningful way is not yet clear. While it reduced cue reactivity, the subjects reported that the single TMS sessions didn’t alter their drug or alcohol cravings thereafter, and the scientists say further experiments involving repeated sessions will be needed to see if the technique can achieve such an outcome.
An ongoing clinical trial is currently exploring this by exposing cocaine users to multiple TMS sessions, but the researchers say the discovery could have consequences outside of advanced new treatments for drug and alcohol abuse. Cue reactivity is a symptom of many diseases, including post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“Therefore, the treatment described in this manuscript may have implications far beyond the substance abuse field,” says senior author Colleen Hanlon.