Brain Stimulation as a Potential Treatment for Addiction

by Diana Martinez, MD and Pierre Trifilieff, PhD | August 14, 2015

Brain stimulation has been in use for decades as a potential treatment for psychiatric disorders. However, its use in addiction is relatively new. Promising clinical and preclinical data suggest it could have some positive effects, although to be effective the type of stimulation and the brain areas to be targeted have to be more deeply explored.

In humans, there are currently three types of procedures used for brain stimulation:

  1. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
  2. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS)
  3. Deep brain stimulation (DBS).

The first two methods are non-invasive procedures that deliver a stimulus across the scalp and skull, whereas deep brain stimulation requires the implantation of electrodes in the brain. Two TMS devices have been approved by the FDA to treat major depressive disorder (Neuronetics, Malverne, PA in 2008 and Brainsway, Jerusalem, Israel in 2013). TDCS devices can be readily purchased and do not require FDA approval.

Repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS)

rTMS uses a coil that generates a magnetic field that passes through the skull, inducing an electrical field that alters neuronal activity. The frequency of the rTMS stimuli can be fast (high frequency, usually 10-20 Hertz) or slow (low frequency, 1 Hertz), and the strength of the stimulus is determined by the person’s motor threshold, which is the amount of current that makes the thumb (or leg muscle) move when TMS applied to the motor strip of the brain.

An issue with TMS is the limited depth that can be reached within the brain, and generally only superficial cortical regions can be targeted. As a result, TMS has been used mostly for treating depression, for which stimulating superficial parts of the prefrontal cortex (eg dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is relevant. Coils that allow reaching deeper parts of the brain have been developed, but stimulating deeper brain regions comes at the expense of specificity: larger areas of the brain are stimulated as magnetic field reaches deeper.

In addiction research, the majority of studies have used a “figure 8 coil” to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, (DLPFC) whereas few studies have used an “H coil”, which can reach deeper parts of the brain. Nicotine dependence is the most studied substance use disorder, and a number of studies have indicated that stimulating the DLPFC reduces craving for cigarettes. However, fewer studies have investigated smoking cessation itself.

Amiaz et al performed a randomized study of high frequency rTMS to the DLPFC, which used a sham control (where subjects think rTMS is being delivered through a coil, but no actual stimulus is delivered). The results showed that cigarette smoking, measured by self-report and urine cotinine (a metabolite of nicotine), was reduced in the active rTMS group compared to sham. However, the effect tended to dissipate once the rTMS sessions ended, suggesting that maintained stimulation may be needed.

Only one study has been published using the H coil, which stimulates broader parts of the frontal cortex (the insula, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the DLPFC). This study was a large randomized trial (n=115) that compared high and low frequency rTMS for 10 days, with a maintenance phase, and showed that high frequency rTMS reduced cigarette smoking.

In alcohol use disorders, the majority of rTMS studies have investigated craving only, with no randomized controlled trials investigating alcohol drinking. As with the studies of nicotine dependence, most of these have used high frequency rTMS to target the DLPFC. However, the effect of rTMS on craving for alcohol is mixed, with some studies showing an effect while others do not.

More promising results have been reported with the H coil, but these are preliminary open trials. One small study of subjects with comorbid dysthymic disorder/alcohol use disorder used bilateral H coil stimulation of the prefrontal cortex and showed improvement in depressive symptoms and a reduction in craving for alcohol. Similar results were reported in a pilot study using the H coil directed at the medial prefrontal cortex vs sham which showed that high frequency rTMS decreased subjects report of their alcohol intake (mean number of drinks per day and drinks on days of maximum alcohol intake).

Only a few studies have been performed investigating the effect rTMS in stimulant abuse (cocaine and methamphetamine), and these have only focused on targeting the DLPFC and its effects on craving. While these show some promise, there is a need to perform clinical trials that investigate actual drug taking.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) delivers a low voltage, weak current across an anode and cathode, usually delivered with a 9 volt battery. The electrical current penetrates the skull to a degree, though this current is much too low to change the firing rate of neurons. These devices can be purchased online, and there are numerous reports of TDCS improving a wide range of neurological and psychiatric disorders, but there is no clear consensus on its usefulness or even how effective such a low current could be.

The studies in addiction using TDCS have generally used only a few sessions (consisting of wearing the device for about 20 minutes) and subjects are asked to rate changes in craving. Overall, the results are very mixed, with some studies showing beneficial effects while others do not (see Addiction and Jansen et al.).

The only studies using TDCS and investigating an effect on drug intake have looked at smoking. These studies show that TDCS reduces smoking when subjects are asked to report on their cigarette intake, but not when breath carbon dioxide levels are measured, which questions efficacy of TDCS.

Studies have been performed in cocaine, alcohol and cannabis abuse, but while these studies report results such as decreased craving, improved cognition, or improved mood, they have not looked at drug consumption itself (see Addiction and Jansen et al.).

Deep brain simulation (DBS)

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) uses electrodes that are placed in a specific brain region by a neurosurgeon. DBS is FDA-approved to treat movement disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder, but DBS is not approved for addiction. Small number of preliminary research studies are being performed and studies in rodents have shown that brain stimulation of the nucleus accumbens reduces alcohol and cocaine consumption.

In humans, there have been case reports of DBS having a beneficial effect on reducing the consumption of substances of abuse, such as alcohol, nicotine, and heroin, although these have been cases where patients received DBS for disorders other than addiction (such as depression).

A few small studies using DBS have been performed specifically in addicted individuals with addiction. A case series of 5 severely alcohol dependent patients was performed at the University of Lübeck, Germany, where bilateral electrodes were implanted in the nucleus accumbens. The results showed that all of the patients experienced a reduction in craving and two achieved complete abstinent from alcohol.

Small studies have been conducted specifically using DBS to treat refractory alcohol dependence. Five severe alcohol dependent patients were treated at the University of Lübeck, Germany, where bilateral electrodes were implanted in the nucleus accumbens. These studies showed that the subjects experienced a reduction in craving and two achieved complete abstinence from alcohol.

In heroin dependence, a case report of two subjects who received bilateral DBS to the nucleus accumbens reported an improvement in depressive symptoms and anxiety in these patients, and a reduction, though not cessation, in their drug use.


Of the stimulation techniques, rTMS may have the greatest promise, though imaging studies in addiction indicate that deeper brain structures should be targeted. rTMS is currently used clinically to treat depression, based on research showing that stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is effective in relieving symptoms. However, the DLPFC is a more superficial brain region, whereas rodent and imaging studies in addiction indicate that deeper parts of the prefrontal cortex need to be stimulated. rTMS devices that reach these structures are being developed and will be studied in addiction.

TDCS is readily available for human use, but the data on this technology is very limited. Although some studies indicate that TDCS may have an effect on craving for drugs or alcohol, there is little data on drug taking and these studies are limited to cigarette smoking. Deep brain stimulation is the least studied of the brain stimulation techniques, due to the invasiveness of implanting brain electrodes. The data with DBS is not only limited, it has also not been shown to have a large impact on opiate/alcohol use. However, it should be noted that the small studies using DBS include very small numbers of patients with very refractory illness.

Diana Martinez, MD

Dr. Martinez is an Associate Professor at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute. She is a psychiatrist and imaging researcher whose work has focused on using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging in drug addiction. PET imaging allows the measurement of dopamine receptors and dopamine release in the human brain, and her work focuses on using this imaging technique, based on animal models of addiction, to better understand the neurochemistry of substance use disorders. Through these types of studies, her work is geared toward developing innovative treatments for addiction.

Pierre Trifilieff, PhD

Dr. Trifilieff is an Assistant Professor at INRA in the University of Bordeaux. His research focuses on the role of the mesolimbic dopaminergic transmission in physiologic and pathological conditions. Since the activity of the dopaminergic D2 receptor is altered in various psychiatric disorders that involve a dysregulation of the reward system, his work aims at unraveling the role of D2 receptor-dependent signaling in the modulation of reward processing and motivation. This includes studying the impact of D2 receptor manipulations on goal-directed behaviors as well as identifying environmental factors that impact D2-dependent signaling and related behaviors.


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  1. Tony Dec 24, 2018 - 01:49 PM

    Ive just started using CES machine called Mindalive and Iam getting great results.

    I was addicted to opiates, Iam off all opiates and use the machine 30-45 mins a day.

    Definetly increases mood and helps with depression that comes when stopping these drugs.

  2. John S. Brooks CADC-2 MATS Sep 28, 2018 - 02:09 PM

    I’m a counselor working with addicted men and a brain stimulation user/layman researcher.

    I’ve been following the various brain stimulation devices for 10 years, built my own tdcs unit early on, and worked at a short-lived treatment facility that used brain stimulation, established and overseen by a physician with whom I’d shared available published research. 

    Seeing new devices emerging is encouraging, such as the Vielight, albeit this technology is rife with controversy over the efficacy of research data being skewed by marketing efforts, as has occurred with the Bridge detox withdrawal analgesic device. 

    From my own work with addicts, I think brain stimulation could be an effective adjunct to meeting the challenge that increasingly more powerful drugs, incarceration, and long-term drug use present to recovery professionals helping addicts. Although our brain is a marvelous organ, to paraphrase Dr. Kevin McCauley, in chronic addiction it’s “insulted”  so drastically by the factors noted above, that more direct and powerful methods must be found to help treat it directly, along with the outcome-based modalities of CBT, and others currently accepted.

    My own dream is a Recovery Research Institute, funded and intended to research this technology with consenting “last house on the block” residential addicted patients, with approved, legitimate, credible modalities and brain stimulation therapies to not only give them a chance to recover, but also yield data to guide clinicians in using brain stimulation most effectively. The ultimate goal being to help addiction treatment evolve towards its primary mission, fostering lifetime recovery for the most number of addicts in the best way possible.

    We’ve but to see the headlines daily of addicts dying on our streets to recognize the need for this.

  3. Thanaa Aug 28, 2018 - 01:10 PM
    I need help for my son he is only 23 years old and has been suffering for the last 5 years not only him the whole family is and rehab after rehab back home and here to no avail, I heard about the brain surgery and would very much like for him to be examined to see if he is eligible for it please the problem is he is back home now in a rehab and he cant enter the states of course because he was deported due to addiction where can I take him and to whom please let me know asap. 
  4. KELLIE PINE Jul 27, 2018 - 09:04 PM
    My name is Kellie I'm 55 yrs old and have been suffering with addiction for the past 25 yrs. I've been to rehab after rehab without success. At this point in my life I've got 4 grandchildren and I want to see them grow up. It's not like I even get high anymore its more of a maintenance  thing at this point. I feel if I had TMS treatment for my brain I will be able to once and for all live my live free from drugs. I'm willing to do whatever it takes. Sale my house , cars , or cut my hand off. I'm willing to be in a steady Gini pig  if you will ? Thank you for your time, Kellie
  5. laura Jul 14, 2018 - 03:34 PM
    I would like to have my 23-year-old daughter try this type of brain stimulation for opioid of use.  She has been fighting addiction for over five years in and out of rehab two times currently in outpatient treatment three times a week but still using fear for her life please help us 
  6. fred debros Mar 17, 2018 - 11:00 PM



  7. fred debros Mar 17, 2018 - 10:50 PM

    i used evoked potentials for spine surgery and was the anesthetist for many protracted tumor cases on the motor side of the spinal cord. rather than "waking up the pt" we ckd mep's regularly to limit/redirect surgery.


    i was always dumbfounded to see how euphoric these patients were posTop. i think tms of the motor strip is worth as a general cheap adjunct during rehab. if it works it can be dramatic on mood and craving and pain. unfortunately it is not 100%.....

  8. marci Mar 13, 2018 - 11:10 PM

    Those addicted to alcohol may want to look at The Sinclair Method (  and which has been shown to be very useful for some, less so for others.

    Also some good alternative approaches in complementary modalities here:

    Finally, easier-to-access Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation CES  (AlphaStim) may be worth looking into.  

    PS  A friend of ours is completing a month-long rehab at non-profit High Watch in Kent, CT.  Very impressed with the depth, science and compassion of their program -- 12-Step and Evidence Based combo. 

    Love and prayers to everyone struggling with addiction or who has a dear one struggling with addiction.    I believe that the appropriate pharmaceuticals can be very useful, along with modalities like mindfulness and meditation.  Lots of new research on how they impact the brain.    We are at the beginning of a new age in addiction treatment, I believe!  Reason for hope!!!


  9. Paula Gowen Jan 07, 2018 - 01:30 AM
    My family has lost so many due to alcoholism in five generations. My niece is high risk for death. She has been to twelve rehab. She has been sick for years but it spiraled out of control in the last five years. She will and has drank hand sanitizer, vanilla and any alcohol or product with alcohol.  She has lost her marriage, job and children. Her brother died from an overdose last year. He was 26. Her step father who raised her was murdered at 60 three years ago. His death was due to drugs. Her mother is totally disabled. Her brain is fried literally. She is 60. My niece is 36. I have information about our family tree. She lives in Dallas, Texas. She has financial resources. If you know of a trial study or can recommend a Rehab Center who is using TSM please let me know. 
  10. Sheila Abbasi Jan 05, 2018 - 05:49 PM

    Since reading about magnetic brain stimulation as a possible treatment for drug addiction in National Geographic's September 2017 edition, I have been researching this subject.  I have a son who is 25 years old.  He has been battling addiction for 10 years, with each battle becoming more life threatening.  He is currently in rehab for the second time.  This time for methamphetamine.

    He was in his senior year for Software Engineering when he started using Adderal (not prescribed), and became addicted.  Subsequently he moved on to using meth.  This caused acute psychosis for months on end.  He finally checked himself into a psychiatric rehabilitation hospital and has since been under the care of some very good doctors. 

    My son is also someone who respects science and results.  While he is committed to AA and his overall treatment using anti psychotic drugs, etc., he shares the sentiments of James Mullaney who commented previously.  While AA has saved many lives, the statistics are not encouraging at all.

    My son also has a strong desire to overcome his illness and is frustrated with the current statistics on recurring relapses, and wonders if there will ever be hope for permanent recovery for himself, fellow addicts, and healing for all of the families destroyed by this disease. 

    I would like more information regarding trials on magnetic brain stimulation and all other treatment options available.  We have the means to help our son with the cost of travel if he were to be considered for any trials.

    I look forward to your response.

    Sheila Abbasi

  11. Jackie Smith Dec 14, 2017 - 06:25 PM

    My son served his country for 20 years with two Iraq tours. Experienced two back to back explosions where fellow soldiers were blown to pieces. He can not stop drinking and VA "can't treat PTSD, if he has it, until sober three months."  How could any human go through something like this and not need treatment for PTSD? The clue is his dramatic increase in drinking and periods is severe depression since Iraq tours.He desperately need correct medical care and an effective treatment for his alcohol use disorder. He has gone through detox several times but starts drinking within days of discharge. Hopefully he will have opportunity to try r TMS before alcohol and PTSD kills him. Would greatly appreciate updates on this treatment for alcohol use disorder. My son and I many other veterans have been greatly undeserved by our broken and out dated VA hospitals when it comes to addiction medicine.

  12. Cynthia Oct 29, 2017 - 08:44 PM

    Just possibly there is hope for me with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Nicotine is slowly

    killing me. My brain, my body, my emotions have been controlled by nicotine for years.

    I have tried everything available in helping me end this addiction. I am willing, for myself

    and others suffering this same fate, to be studied in any way needed. Please consider.

  13. TressaLynn69 Oct 26, 2017 - 08:46 AM
    Please send me more information on research efforts and results. thank you
  14. Scott Smith Oct 25, 2017 - 05:49 PM

    I am an alcoholic and am very interested in participating in any study that considers the effectiveness of TMS in treating addiction. Please consider me. I would travel anywhere I could afford to for help.

    Scott Smith

  15. james mullaney Oct 16, 2017 - 05:57 PM
    I am following and researching tms therapy in addiction. Relatively new with great promise, I hope to contribute to find  a treatment option for me and my fellow addicts.  I have great interest in all treatment methods. Alcoholic  Anonymous is the most looked too solution for chronic alcohol abuse. The approach of a higher power (GOD) in most meetings, and the addicts moral failings, dominate AA sanctioned writings and discussions. I am a man of numbers and scientific data to show results and back them up. In any logical thinking 1 in 10 success rate in an organized structure is deemed a failure. However in AA it is hailed as a great success, due to the other outcomes of incarceration institutionalization, or death. I am enjoying a period of alcohol abstinence and contentment attending meetings and researching my avenues for permanent sobriety. This is not my first attempt at sobriety, it has been a 30 year struggle with limited success. My interest is great and any involvement in studies and or progress with treatment would be greatly appreciated. I am pushing on with or without outside help. I do want to live a reasonable and fulfilling life. Thanks Jim Mullaney 773-366-1326
  16. Margie Oct 11, 2017 - 09:54 AM
    Help my neoce in orrgon
  17. Margie Oct 11, 2017 - 09:53 AM
    please contact me my neice an daughter need help.  5416433669
  18. Joao Correia Jul 04, 2016 - 03:47 PM
    How could I know more about the use of DBS on the treatment of cocaine adition.
  19. randi Feb 29, 2016 - 10:33 PM

    Hello. I would like to have updates on research or participate in alcohol addiction. Im 58 and would not care if being a guinne pig would leave me lame. Alcohol is worse

    Thanks randi

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