Brain Injury and Smoking Addiction


Brain Injury and Smoking Addiction

While scientists still know little about how specific parts of our brain affect our habits, a recent breakthrough in this area is revolutionizing addiction research and inspiring new ideas for addictive behavior treatment. The breakthrough involves a study in which stroke patients with an injury to a part of the brain near the ear, immediately and permanently broke their smoking habits.

Researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of Iowa studied 32 former smokers who had suffered a brain injury. While they had all smoked five cigarettes or more a day for at least two years, 16 claimed they had lost their cravings and had entirely quit smoking with ease. Subsequent M.R.I. scans on the patients’ brains showed that the 16 who had easily quit smoking were much more likely to have an injury to a part of their brain known as the insula.

While brain injury is obviously not a solution for addiction, future research and therapies will likely focus on the insula, a walnut-sized region of the brain located deep within the cortex of the brain on either lateral side. The insula has been associated with gut instincts and conscious urges, and it now also appears to be a vital part of the neural network that sustains addictive behavior.

Before drawing any definitive conclusions, however, one should bear in mind that:

  • The study did not investigate dependence on cocaine, alcohol or other substances.
  • Scientists still know little about how widely distributed neural networks affect habits.
  • Care should be taken with regard to extrapolating the results to addictive behavior in healthy brains.

On the other hand, it has been shown that presenting film of people using drugs or pictures of nicotine, heroin or cocaine to drug abusers often activated their insula. Experts also agree that smoking probably involves the same brain circuits as those for other drug habits and that smoking is at least as hard to quit.

One of the reasons follow-up studies had not previously been done is that the insula did not seem to affect the triggering of dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked with pleasure and motivation. Previous research had centered on areas of the cortex concerned with thinking and decision-making. But while these regions of the cortex have to do with maintaining habits, the new study implies that the insula may be more central with regard to addictive behavior.

Regardless of what is uncovered about what role the insula plays in addictions other than that of smoking, such as drug abuse, alcoholism and compulsive eating, the study is the first to show that damage to a specific region of the brain could remove an addiction entirely. As such, the study is sure to revolutionize future research on the problem of substance addiction and addictive behavior.

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