People who smoke more than a pack of cigarettes per day often face an enormoous challenge in kicking the habit. And nicotine replacement therapy doesn’t always work: about 25 percent of smokers using medication can quit for over 6 months, but often return to the habit within one year. Only 4 to 7 percent of those who don’t use any medication or behavioral therapy are able to quit, according to the American Cancer Society.

But new research offers a new potential form of cessation therapy through the use of brain magnetic stimulation, referred to as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Researchers found that heavy smokers who underwent a form of high frequency TMS had higher success rates in quitting.

“This is a new approach to the [tobacco] problem,” Abraham Zangen, a neuroscientist at Ben Gurion University in Israel who led the study, told the Guardian. “These are heavy smokers who could not stop smoking before.”

The study reviewed 115 people between the ages of 21 and 70. The participants all smoked at least 20 cigarettes per day – and had all tried to stop smoking before by using at least two different kinds of treatments, such as nicotine supplements, cognitive behavioral therapy, or anti-smoking drugs like Chantix or Zyban. The participants were divided into three groups; the first experienced 15 minutes of high frequency magnetic stimulation every weekday for two weeks and three sessions in the third week. The second group experienced the same number of sessions, but with low frequency magnetic stimulation. And the third group served as the control, as they were made to assume they were having their brains stimulated, but the device was actually turned off.

The stimulation technique employed in the trial is called deep repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). Standard TMS has been used to treat depression, and was approved by the FDA in 2008 as an alternative for people whose antidepressants weren’t doing the trick. It’s a non-invasive, outpatient treatment that stimulates certain parts of the brain to enhance moods, and doesn’t require any sedatives or medications.

According to Zangen’s results, out of the participants who received high frequency rTMS, 44 percent stopped smoking after the three-week trial. After six months, Zangen tested their urine for cotinine (a breakdown product of nicotine) and found that 36 percent were still not smoking. Those who underwent low frequence rTMS and those who believed they were receiving it both experienced a placebo effect and stopped smoking for a short period of time.

Zangen and a team of researchers had performed a similar trial in 2009, using standard transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coils, but the study’s results weren’t as positive. However, the recent study "utilizes the special electromagnetic coils for deeper stimulation of the relevant brain regions associated with the craving circuitry in the brain,” Zangen told Israeli Innovation News. “The results are much more promising.”

It’s a daunting task to quit smoking for anyone. Nicotine replacement therapy such as patches and even e-cigarettes often work to curb or stop the smoking for a short period of time, but within a year most smokers are back to their old habit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide. It causes more than 5 million deaths per year.

“It’s quite easy to quit for a few days, or even for a few weeks, but if we can help people quit for more than three months, then they are actually quite unlikely to relapse later on,” Zangen told the Guardian.

It’s important to note, however, that the study is a very small one, and will need to be repeated on a larger scale for its results to be verified. Scientists are organizing a larger trial now that will begin next year in several medical centers around the world. Peter Eichhamer of the University of Regensburg believes that if the larger trial proves effective, rTMS should be implemented as a possible treatment along with psychotherapy. “rTMS may help people to reduce smoking, most likely by mimicking nicotine’s actions on the brain reward system,” he told the Guardian. “But it does not substitute a special psychological therapy.”