Quitting smoking? The triggers for success are in your head

Researchers are finding strong evidence that parts of the brain are involved in gaining control over smoking and nicotine addiction, and that different areas may be important for each individual.

Researchers are finding strong evidence that parts of the brain are involved in gaining control over smoking and nicotine addiction, and that different areas may be important for each individual.

Two recent reports look at the neural systems from various angles.

One study, published online by the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that people who had a stronger brain response in certain brain regions when getting individually tailored smoking cessation messages were more likely to quit four months later.

Researchers at the University of Michigan assessed 91 volunteers who wanted to stop smoking and designed an individual stop smoking plan for each person.

Researchers have long known that stop smoking efforts tooled to an individual’s personality and circumstances are more likely to work.

Then, they did brain imaging studies to see which parts of the brain responded to tailored and generic messages about stopping smoking, and to neural messages.

They compared those responses to brain reaction to unrelated statements from each subject, such as “I am shy” or “I am athletic.”

Several brain regions that lit up in responding to the statements also were activated when hearing the tailored messages for the same group of smokers.

“The bottom line is that people who are more likely to activate self-related regions of the brain during tailored message processing are more likely to quit four months after,’’ said Hannah Chua, the lead researcher on the project.

Some people had a stronger brain response than others to the tailored messages, Chua said, but it’s not clear if it’s because their brains are organized differently or because those subjects were somehow more primed to quit.

But it was clear that some people in the study absorbed the messages more readily than others.

The program was about twice as successful as most cessation campaigns, with more than 50 percent not smoking at four month follow-ups.

Most programs have 15 to 30 percent success rates.

The second study, published in the journal Psychological Science, also used brain imaging to watch three specific brain regions known to affect inhibition of unwanted or habitual behavior.

The work involved 27 heavy smokers involved in a cessation program in Los Angeles.

First they were brain-imaged while doing a self-control task — pushing or pulling a lever in response to seeing certain letters, but refraining when they saw the letter X.

The brain scans showed how well each person activated their “response inhibition” regions.

Then, they went through a 21-day program that involved getting eight text messages a day checking on their progress in stopping and cravings. They were required to reply to questions on each one.

About a week after that period was over, they were re-tested on their inhibition response and progress in the 21-day program.

Those who had the best response reactions in their controlling brain regions during the first test had also been more successful in controlling their cravings to smoke, the researchers found.

“The more you activate those three brain regions when you are engaging successfully in stopping, the more likely you are to successfully deal with your cravings in real life (later),” said Elliott Berkman, a researcher at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study.

Lee Bowman is a science and health writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.