Nicotine Withdrawal Hijacks Brain Connections Tied to Self-Control

Posted on January 30th, 2015

Nicotine Withdrawal Hijacks Brain Connections Tied to Self-ControlA recent study has found that nicotine may be targeting parts of the brain involved in self-control, which would help explain why it is so hard to quit smoking even when we know how bad smoking is for our health.

Smoking in America

Smoking contributes to heart disease, cancer, lung disease and other serious illnesses. It is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. and in many other countries throughout the world. Smoking is responsible for billions of dollars of healthcare money to treat those who have become sick from cigarettes. There are so many reasons to prevent people from starting smoking and to help current smokers quit.

Education and awareness have done their part to reduce the amount of smoking in the U.S. In the last 50 years, the percentage of adults who smoke has been reduced from 42 to 19. And yet, we have reached a stand-still. Education can only go so far. For some reason, despite the known dangers, many people still smoke. Cigarettes still cause around 440,000 deaths each year. The problem now is that quitting, even for those who desperately want to, is very difficult.

Nicotine Addiction and Self-Control

There is always an element of self-control when it comes to an addiction of any kind. However, it is important to understand that this is a complex factor. For a nonsmoker with strong self-control, it seems like quitting should be achievable. But what if nicotine hijacks that self-control mechanism? Suddenly, doing what you want to do—what you know you should do—isn’t that easy.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine used brain imaging to find out what goes on in the minds of smokers trying to quit. They found that when people are experiencing withdrawal from cigarettes, they struggle with making a switch from default mode in the brain to executive control, more so than a nonsmoker. In other words, something about withdrawal from nicotine makes it difficult to exert conscious self-control. This may help explain why up to 80 percent of people who try to quit smoking end up relapsing.

This study was the first to make comparisons between the brains of people who do not smoke, people who do smoke and people going through withdrawal from smoking. The comparison is important and it shows that the latter group has weaker neural connections in the parts of the brain needed for exerting self-control. If those people were then given a cigarette, their connections went back up and they could again exert normal self-control.

The decrease in brain network connectivity varied in people, making it more difficult for some to quit than for others. The research tells us that there is a biological basis to explain why quitting is so challenging. It also provides a marker that could help us identify people who will find it more difficult to quit than others. If professionals knew who would have more trouble quitting, they could target more effective treatment techniques and help more people quit smoking once and for all.

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