An interesting new study from Ireland reviewed brain activity among former smokers to ascertain if they have different brain patterns from current smokers.
By studying the brains of those who have successfully quit smoking, researchers hope to discover if unique mental skills were required.
Researchers from Trinity College and the Research Institute for a Tobacco Free Society, both in Dublin, obtained functional MRI images while current smokers, former smokers and those who have never smoked performed tasks designed to assess specific cognitive skills thought to be important for smoking abstinence.
Assessment of mental skills included a response inhibition task to determine impulse control and the ability to monitor one’s behavior.
Researchers also analyzed brain activity during an attention task – an assessment of the ability to avoid distraction from smoking-related images.
The investigators found that when doing these tasks, the current smokers compared to the never-smokers showed reduced functioning in prefrontal regions that are related to controlling behavior.
In addition, the current smokers showed elevated activity in sub-cortical brain regions that respond to the reward value or salience of the nicotine stimuli.
However, in marked contrast, the former smokers did not show this sub-cortical activity, but instead showed increased activity in the frontal lobes – the areas that are critically involved in controlling behavior.
Activity in prefontal regions, the area linked to behavioral control, were “super-normal” among former smokers — that is, cerebral activity in this area of the brain was greater than levels of activity among never-smokers.
These findings suggest the brain regions responsible for what might be considered “willpower” show more activity in those who have quit smoking. This type of willpower can be measured, can be related to specific brain regions, and would appear to be related to being able to quit cigarettes.
Researchers believe these results confirm a smoking cessation approach that works to train or reinforce cognitive skills for self-control when confronted with drug desires.