Smokescreen: Scanning the Addict's Brain

in Uncategorized
March 11th, 2011


The neuroscience of addiction has been extensively studied, giving priceless insight into what is happening in the addict’s brain and what keeps people hooked on drug-seeking behavior. Most of the research, though, has been all about the chemical changes in the brain, delving into the molecular level of receptors, neurotransmitters, and reward pathways, etc. But a new approach is being taken from research focusing on extended applications of neuroscience, such as linking neuroscience and “social research and communication studies.” In this video, primary researcher Emily Falk explains the work that is being done at the University of Michigan to try to use the brain as a predictor for one’s ability and commitment to quitting smoking.

It seems your brain may be less committed to quitting than you are! As explained, results show that an fMRI scan of the brain while a smoker is watching “Quit smoking!!!” advertisements can be useful in predicting the person’s future success in really quitting. The study recruited 28 heavy smokers from an anti-smoking program, and while the researchers administered a questionnaire about the subjects’ smoking tendencies and intentions to quit, the truly informative variable seemed to be the fMRI scans, with the main findings being in the medial prefrontal cortex. Neural activity in this region of the brain was significantly linked to reductions in smoking behavior over the month following the scan. Apparently, those who had shown high activation had greatly reduced their amount of daily cigarettes after a month, in comparison to those who did not show prefrontal activation. This is believed to be because the prefrontal cortex is linked with self-reflection and assessment, decision-making and valuation, and “thinking about your future self.”

The main application of this finding will probably not be fMRI scans for all those planning on quitting to assess their potentially predictable success – “Hm, not much medial prefrontal cortex activation for you, it’s not looking good, you probably shouldn’t even bother trying. Give it a year or two, maybe your brain will be more resolved then.” Hopefully this isn’t the case! As explained by Emily Falk in the video, this research could instead be extremely useful for refining anti-smoking ads, to find out how to make them really effective by understanding how the brain reacts. I thought researcher’s intentions sounded extremely interesting- starting with the brain to answer important questions and change things in the stimulus accordingly, as opposed to our usual scientific approach in which the changes in the brain are seen as the outcome. Emily makes it quite apparent that she is very excited about it. Just bursting with enthusiasm.

Other research is being done using fMRI to better understand smoking tendencies. Researchers at Dartmouth College, led by senior investigator Todd Heatherton, published their findings on smoker’s brain scans in the January issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. They took fMRI scans of the brain while smokers and non-smokers watched movies containing scenes in which characters were smoking. Compared with Pulp Fictionon the brainnonsmokers, smokers showed greater activity in left anterior intraparietal sulcus and inferior frontal gyrus, regions involved in the simulation of contralateral hand-based gestures, when viewing scenes that included smoking compared to control scenes. The increased neural activation for smokers versus non-smokers is not too surprising, as researchers have been looking into things like this when studying mirror neurons, but it is a useful study that really highlights the physical part of addiction – the motor habit is something that needs to be broken perhaps just as much as the psychological addiction does. These two studies combined show us more about the cognitive and behavioral aspects of smoking addiction beyond the molecular level, and will hopefully point us in the direction of finally refining anti-smoking mechanisms to be truly influential and effective.

Spontaneous Action Representation in Smokers When Watching Movie Characters Smoke – Journal of Neuroscience.org

Resolved to quit smoking? Brain scans predict likely success-
– University of Michigan The University Record Online

Smoke Scenes in Movies Light Up Smokers Brains – MedicineNet.com


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9 Comments on Smokescreen: Scanning the Addict's Brain

  • Cool stuff!

    When you write, “It seems your brain may be less committed to quitting than you are!”, it sounds like “you” and your brain are separate entities, which of course they’re not. This sounds like self-deception or denial on the part of the quitter; or just one part of the brain resisting what another part has “decided” to do. If it’s the latter, it would be good to see a neural explanation of how these different urges can co-exist in one brain.

  • I was a smoker for 6 years and I found that staying around friends that didn’t smoke, keeping busy and going to the gym with a motivated friend were what kept me sane when putting cigarettes down

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