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TMS Therapy for Addiction: How it Works

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is a non-invasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate the brain’s nerve cells to treat symptoms of depression. The study of TMS therapy for addiction is in its infancy, but some promising research shows that electromagnetic treatment for addiction may work for some people.

4 Minute Read | Published Sep 29 2023 | Updated Mar 11 2024 Expert Verified
Emma Collins
Written by
Ashley Bayliss
Reviewed by
Emma Collins
Written by
Ashley Bayliss
Reviewed by

TMS therapy for addiction shows some promise in preliminary studies.

How TMS Therapy for Addiction Works

During TMS, an electromagnetic coil is placed against your head and delivers a magnetic pulse to the brain. This stimulates the nerve cells in brain regions associated with mood control. The strength of the elecromagnetic pulse is determined by a person’s motor threshold, which is the current that it takes to make the thumb move when the TMS is applied. Although it’s not yet understood exactly why TMS therapy works, research shows that the magnetic stimulation affects brain function to improve symptoms of depression.

In research into TMS therapy for addiction, two types of coils have been used. The majority have been “figure 8” coils, which stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a superficial region of the brain. To reach deeper into the brain, some studies have used an “H coil,” which may or may not be more effective. As deeper regions are stimulated, it’s more difficult to pinpoint very specific regions to get the desired effects.

Studies on TMS Therapy for Addiction

A number of studies have been conducted to determine how well electromagnetic treatment for addiction works, most of them have focused on nicotine addiction. A number of these studies show that TMS therapy reduces nicotine cravings, but very few studies have investigated whether it helps to end a nicotine addiction for good.

One study showed that repeated TMS, known as rTMS, reduced cigarette smoking in participants who received it, compared to a sham control group who did not, but believed they did. However, in this study, the effects were reduced when the rTMS sessions ended. This suggests that ongoing TMS may be necessary to maintain the positive effects.

Some studies have shown rTMS to effectively reduce alcohol cravings, but other studies showed no effect.

In a large study using the H coil, high-frequency magnetic stimulation to the deeper parts of the prefrontal cortex reduced cigarette smoking. Another smaller study of people with co-occurring depression and alcohol addiction showed that bilateral, high-frequency H coil stimulation of the prefrontal cortex showed improvement in depressive symptoms as well as reduced cravings for alcohol.

Only a few studies have looked at the effects of rTMS in stimulant addiction, and these have all focused on cravings. While these show some promise, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of rTMS on cravings.

Deep Brain Stimulation for Addiction

Deep brain stimulation is another type of electromagnetic treatment that requires electrodes to be placed in the brain by a neurosurgeon. Deep brain stimulation for addiction is not yet approved, although small preliminary research studies show that stimulating the nucleus accumbens reduces alcohol and cocaine consumption in rodents.

In cases where deep brain stimulation was being used to treat other disorders, such as depression, it became clear that it also had a beneficial effect on reducing substance abuse. A small study at the University of Lubeck in Germany that focused on the effects of deep brain stimulation on substance abuse found that all five patients in the study, who were implanted with electrodes in the nucleus accumbens, experienced reduced cravings, and two achieved complete alcohol abstinence.

The Bottom Line on TMS Therapy for Addiction

A number of studies have found significantly reduced drug cravings with rTMS therapy, but the small number of studies and the lack of comparison studies make it difficult to determine whether other factors may be attributed to the reduction of cravings associated with addiction. Additionally, it may take five to 10 sessions before the effects are noticeable, and one controlled clinical trial found that TMS only reduced cravings for the first of four treatment weeks, suggesting that it may be possible to build a tolerance for TMS. A literature review published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences stresses that there’s a large number of unanswered questions about TMS therapy for addiction, including its safety and efficacy, the ideal duration of treatment, and how long the effects will last.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, get help right away. Make a phone call that will connect you to a professional drug treatment center. The call you make may save your life or the life of someone you love. Call us today at (800) 429-7690.


bullet George, M. S., & Aston-Jones, G. (2010).
"Noninvasive techniques for probing neurocircuitry and treating illness: Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(1), 301-316."
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bullet George, M. S., Wassermann, E. M., & Williams, W. A. (1996).
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bullet Londero, A., Bon, L., Bellina, M., & Sartori, G. (2019).
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bullet Politi, J. R., DeSimone, C. V., & Drysdale, A. T. (2019).
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