Using a magnet to get rid of a gambling addiction? Sounds odd. And keep reading before you run off to the hobby store and buy some magnets for your friends. This isn’t just any magnet we’re talking about.
Neurologist Antonello Bonci has been conducting research into addictions (including gambling addictions), and especially cocaine addictions. His research is done in both the US and his native Italy, and over the years he has found the key receptors that play a role in any form of addictions.
Bonci started using magnets in his research a few years ago, with positive results. These results led to more focused research, where it quickly became evident that their findings with cocaine addicts would also apply to gambling addictions.
The brains for addicts of both cocaine and gambling have many similarities. Most importantly, they relate in a similar way to the brain’s reward system. To learn more about this, read the article on dopamine and gambling addictions.
Around 2010, Bonci was conducting research in Baltimore, Maryland. Together with colleague Billy Chen, they turned rats into cocaine addicts. The animals were so addicted they were willing to endure painful electrical shocks to obtain the drug.
Bonci and Chen also used genetic manipulation in the rats, allowing them to control the rats’ brains with lights. When they proceeded to stimulate their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain right at the forehead, the rats abandoned their destructive search for cocaine. This triggered a new wave of research.
To stimulate the prefrontal cortex in the rats, Bonci used magnetic pulses to activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the outermost layer of the front part of the brain, and the part of the brain that is developed well into adulthood, turning reckless teenagers into responsible grown-ups. The technique he used, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was already used for the treatment of mostly depression. Applying these same tactics in light of addictions was promising, too.
In addicts, two key connections in the frontal lobes of the brain are configured opposite of how they work in non-addicts. The area that is responsible for reducing addict behavior is not active enough. Reversely, the part of the brain that fuels the need for an addict’s stimulus is overactive. The magnetic stimulation can regulate these brain activities and restore a healthy balance.
To perform the TMS procedure, a magnet is placed at the patient’s forehead. Magnetic pulses then influence the neurons in the brain.
One of the first research projects by Bonci involved 29 cocaine addicts. These subjects used about 2 grams every other day. Bonci divided them into two groups: one group received the TMS treatment, the other group served as the control group and didn’t receive treatment. Both groups were told to stop using cocaine, which was verified with urine samples.
After nearly a month, three participants in the control group had no traces of cocaine in their urine. In the group of participants that did receive the TMS treatment, ten participants had not used cocaine since.
After these first results of Bonci’s research, different people started using his results in practice. Luigi Gallimberti, a treating psychiatrist in a private clinic in Padua, replaced the rats from earlier research with people. He experimented on 32 of his patients using the rTMS technique (the r here stands for repetitive, often indicating a therapeutic form of the technique).
With the successes in this subsequent experiment, Gallimberti started offering the treatment more regularly. He started working together with Bonci, and together they opened a cocaine addiction treatment clinic in Milan. Gallimberti has treated over 350 addicts in total.
Bonci expanded his research, aided by technological developments that allowed a more granular approach. This resulted in more and more impressive results and spurred on interest from other universities, related academic fields, and the addiction treatment industry. This increased interest also brought the attention to treating a gambling addiction.
Different countries and universities are conducting further research, experimenting with different levels and strengths of the magnetic pulse, and how to best incorporate these findings into existing treatment plans. This last part is especially important, because successful treatments require psychological guidance to prevent setbacks.
A remarkable result from Bonci’s TMS treatments is that it permanently changes the circuitry in the brain. Damage done through drug use (in creating neural pathways) can be reversed. This means that less resources are needed in guiding former addicts, naturally depending on the type and severity of addiction that is being treated.