Researchers have discovered yet another reason why it is so difficult to quit smoking: just 12 hours after a person’s last cigarette, the oxygen uptake and blood flow in the quitter’s brain decreases significantly compared to those who have never smoked.
Because of this, the researchers suggest that a gradual cutting back on smoking may be the best choice to avoid the severe effects of withdrawal.
“Regular smokers experience an almost dementia-like condition in the early hours after quitting, as suggested by brain scans. This can be quite an unpleasant experience, and is probably one of the reasons why it can be very difficult to quit smoking once and for all.
“Smokers drift back into abuse, perhaps not to obtain a pleasant effect — that ship has sailed — but simply because the withdrawal symptoms are unbearable,” said Professor Albert Gjedde at the University of Copenhagen.
Nicotine, the chemical in cigarettes that makes them addictive, initially increases brain activity when a person first begins smoking, the study suggests. The brain tissue, however, quickly adapts and these brain-boosting effects disappear. Then, when a person first tries to quit, the brain’s oxygen uptake and blood flow immediately decrease by up to 17 percent, according to brain scans.
This phenomenon happens with other pharmacologically active substances as well.
“After a period of time, many users of medicine will no longer experience an effect from treatment — for example with antidepressants. However, the consequences of discontinuing treatment could still be overwhelming if the withdrawal symptoms are very unpleasant,” Albert Gjedde said.
Longtime smokers seemingly need to continue smoking just to keep their brain functioning normally. With time, former smokers will eventually lose their dependency on nicotine, but the researchers still do not know how long it takes before their brains will regained normal energy consumption and blood flow.
“We assume that it takes weeks or months, but we do not know for sure. The new findings suggest that it may be a good idea to stop smoking gradually — simply to avoid the worst withdrawal symptoms that make it so difficult to stick to the otherwise very sensible decision to stop smoking,” Albert Gjedde added.
Smoking is harmful in almost every respect. Cancer, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases are just a few of the well-documented diseases that one can incur from smoking.
Gjedde notes that more research is needed and that there are still many blind spots in the quest to better understand the brains of smokers.
The findings are published in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism.
Source: University of Copenhagen