According to a 2012 survey published, nearly 20 percent of the adult population in the United Kingdom smokes tobacco cigarettes. Due in large part to the prevalence of tobacco-related illnesses and deaths throughout the U.K. and the world, more than 50 percent of current smokers report a sincere desire to kick the habit for good.
In the majority of cases (up to 90 percent), however, relapse typically occurs within one year of quitting. Reasons for relapse or the inability to quit vary on a case-by-case basis and may include factors such as stress, depression, physical need related to withdrawal, or even the firm belief that it’s simply impossible to quit.
Another recent study published reveals that one additional factor may play a more significant role than any of these components combined: Impulsivity.
Impulse and Craving: The Cognitive Link
Many people may fondly consider themselves impulsive to a point, in the sense that they might run off on a spontaneous road trip with friends on a whim because their weekend plans just opened up, or they just spent an extra £30 at the shopping centre's on something frivolous because it was marked down from £100. This isn’t the type of impulse behaviour the scientists targeted in there recent study, but it does, interestingly enough, originate in the same parts of the brain that they evaluated.
The prefrontal cortex, for example, is associated with separating and understanding complex thoughts, emotions and urges, and suppressing them when necessary. A sudden increase in activity in this particular area of the brain may indicate the mind’s desire to fulfill a certain need or want or, conversely, the need to subdue that desire, depending on the circumstances.
Analysing Neural Circuitry
During the study, 31 chronic smokers were passively presented with a number of diverse images. Some of the images were neutral while others were smoking-related. During the presentation of the visual stimuli, the participants were asked to report their feelings regarding any cravings they might experience as their brains were scanned. They also completed the BIS-11 (the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale), one of the most commonly utilised self-report instruments used to assess impulsivity.
Scans of the prefrontal and cingulated cortices revealed notable positive correlation between increases in activity, they score and cravings reported by participants. Smokers whose impulsivity scores were highest reported stronger, more frequent cravings for tobacco cigarettes overall.
Even as this positive correlation suggested a connection between impulsivity and the strength of cravings, a negative correlation involving a different part of the brain supported the idea that highly impulsive smokers may have an extremely difficult time managing their cravings, regardless of strength. A marked decrease in activity in the posterior cingulate cortex, or PCC, was observed, in conjunction with a similar change in Barratt scores.
The analysts believe that these results support their previous postulation regarding cue-induced tobacco cravings. The decreased ability of an inherently impulsive individual to resist an intense craving may certainly have an effect on whether or not said individual is capable of quitting smoking in a traditional way (i.e., cold turkey, smoking cessation aids, etc.) or maintaining successful cessation for an extended period of time.
They point out that this study is the first of its kind and that the results gleaned from his research have yet to be confirmed by others in the field. They hope that these findings and his processes will encourage future teams of researchers and psychiatrists to delve into the study of the posterior cingulate cortex, particularly in regard to its key role as the cognitive seat of tobacco cravings.
Learning more about the various ways in which the brain develops and reacts to cravings will help medical professionals treating individuals addicted to tobacco and other substances formulate effective and successful treatment plans for their patients. It is the hope of scientists that research like this will someday open the door to a comprehensive and permanent solution to the dangerous problem of tobacco addiction.