Smokers can control cravings by training their brains: Study

Washington: Want to kick the butt? You can do
it by training your brain, scientists claim.

Researchers at Yale University found that smokers can
control their cravings for cigarettes by tamping down emotion
and thinking logically about the long-term consequences of the

Using a technique called functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI), the researchers watched the brains of smokers
as they were shown images of cigarettes and food.

When the smokers tried to resist their cravings for their
objects of desire, parts of their brain linked with control of
emotion lit up with activity, while craving-related areas

"This shows that smokers can indeed control their
cravings, they just need to be told how to do it," lead
researcher Hedy Kober of the Yale School of Medicine was
quoted as saying by LiveScience.

Previous research has found that the presence of these
strong urges is one of the best predictors for relapse in
substance abusers. As a result, many recovery programmes use a
method called cognitive-behavioural therapy to retrain the
brain in the face of temptation.

While cognitive-behavioural therapy is often successful
for helping people quit smoking, no one knew exactly which
brain areas were involved in this craving-reduction process.

Previous work pointed to a few key areas, including the
prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain behind the forehead
that`s known to be important in cognitive control.

Another area of interest is the ventral striatum, which is
buried deep in the forebrain and gets activated when people
feel cravings for a drug.

To test their theory that these areas are important in
resisting cravings, the researchers had 21 smokers try to
resist cravings triggered by the images of cigarettes and
food. The smokers were told to think of the long-term negative
consequences of giving in.

They found that the smokers had stronger cravings for
cigarettes than food, but they were able to manage both
cravings equally, reducing each by about one-third as shown by
decreases in activity in the craving region of the brain.

As they successfully resisted their cravings, the
smokers` emotional regulation areas in the prefrontal cortex
showed increased blood flow, indicating greater activity.

Meanwhile, the ventral striatum and other emotional areas
tied to cravings such as the amygdala (an almond-shaped
structure deep in the brain), showed less activity. The
pattern held whether the participants were fighting the desire
for food or cigarettes.

"We saw really nicely that there`s this pathway," said
Kevin Ochsner, a psychologist at Columbia University and
co-author of the study.

"The frontal lobe comes on, the striatum goes off, and
then craving goes off."

He said that many people assume there is something wrong
with the brains of addicts that makes them unable to resist
cravings, but the fact is that smokers were able to equally
control their cravings for addictive tobacco and non-addictive
food suggests that something else is going on.

More likely, smokers either lack strong enough motivation
or effective strategies to quit, he added.

The findings published in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences.


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