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Why It's Hard to Kick the Smoking Habit

Brain scans showed nicotine withdrawal weakens parts of the brain tied to ability to control cravings

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, March 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Nicotine withdrawal triggers changes to the brain that help explain why smokers have such a tough time quitting, a new study suggests.

Up to 80 percent of smokers who try to quit eventually start smoking again. This latest finding might lead to new ways to identify smokers who are at high risk for failure when they try to quit, the researchers said. The study might also lead to more intensive treatment to help smokers quit for good.

The researchers used fMRIs to scan the brains of 37 smokers, aged 19 to 61, immediately after they smoked and again after they had been smoke-free for 24 hours and were experiencing nicotine withdrawal.

The researchers discovered that nicotine withdrawal weakens brain connections associated with the ability to control cravings for cigarettes, according to the study, which was published in this week's issue of the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Specifically, they have trouble shifting from an inward-focused brain network to one that helps them have more control over their desire for cigarettes and focus on quitting smoking, the researchers said.

"Symptoms of withdrawal are related to changes in smokers' brains, as they adjust to being off of nicotine," study co-leader Caryn Lerman, head of the Brain and Behavior Change Program at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a university news release. "This study validates those experiences as having a biological basis."

"The next step will be to identify in advance those smokers who will have more difficultly quitting and target [them with] more intensive treatments, based on brain activity and network connectivity," she added.

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