Specific areas of the brain show increased activation in smokers who are deprived of nicotine, says a University of Pennsylvania study.
The finding may boost understanding of cigarette cravings, a key risk factor for relapse among people trying to kick the habit, the researchers said.
“There have been several brain imaging studies showing how subjects respond to visual, smoking-related cues, such as a picture of a cigarette or of someone smoking,” senior study author Caryn Lerman, director of the Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center, said in a prepared statement. “However, less is known about the neural basis of urges that arise naturally as a result of nicotine deprivation. This study was designed to help fill this research gap.”
The study included 15 regular smokers whose brain blood flow was measured on two separate occasions. The participants had a cigarette within an hour of having the first brain scan, and then abstained from smoking overnight before the second scan.
The results showed that cravings to smoke are associated with increased activation in brain regions that play a role in attention, behavioral control, memory and reward.
“The craving assessments used in our study predict relapse in smoking-cessation treatment. If validated in larger studies, these results may have important clinical implications. For example, perfusion MRI may aid in the identification of smokers at increased risk for relapse who require more intensive therapy,” Lerman said.