Research teams at McGill University in Canada and Japanese scientific institute RIKEN have successfully zoned in on the region of the brain connected to smokers’ urge to light up.

On top of that, they found that by manipulating the brain’s electric activity around that region they could reduce a person’s desire to smoke. While this is great news for addiction treatment, the idea of noninvasively controlling people’s wants is a troubling concept.

When an electric current is passed through a material it becomes magnetic. The strength of this magnetic force can be charted as a field surrounding the material. For example, winding a conductive material into a coil and passing a current through it creates a strong magnetic field that can be turned on and off.

Since the brain also functions by sending electric currents, it too has a magnetic field. However, it’s an extremely weak one which is why paper clips don’t come flying at our heads. This electric current shooting around our brains can also be influenced by outside magnetic fields.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) uses these basic principles to try to explore and adjust human brains. Devices used in this method have coils which generate a mild magnetic field – similar to that of an MRI – that passes through skin and bone and can interact with the electric currents of the mind.

Previously, in a separate study researchers used TMS to “persuade” right-handed people to use their left hand for minor tasks such as picking up objects.

By “inserting” a magnetic field into the parietal lobe (top-rear) of the brain they would likely push an elevator button with the left-hand but couldn’t perform complex tasks like writing.

In the RIKEN/McGill study researchers used TMS to locate the active part of the tobacco addict’s brain when they think, “Man, I need a smoke.”

Narrowing down the source of this urge to the dorsolateral surface of the brain (near the front), then applied a magnetic field to it for about 30 minutes. During that time test subjects reported a dulling of their desire to smoke.

The full extent of TMS on addiction is yet to be discovered, but this is an encouraging sign for a range of brain related problems from mental illness to headaches.

On the other hand, technology which can sway people’s feeling could have more sinister applications in the realms of politics, warfare, and business. Not to mention the health implications of governments, companies, and individuals trying to zap our brains with magnets all the time.

This technology is still very rough and will take further research to determine its full potential.  Meanwhile, to all the sci-fi writers out there, here’s your next screenplay.

Source: Gizmodo (Japanese)
Image: Wikipedia – Gusdavinci