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Some People’s Brains Make it Extra Hard to Quit

How you're wired might influence how easily you can give up the cigs.

Jesse Hicks

It's no secret that it's hard to quit smoking. The cravings. The fidgeting. The compensatory over-eating. Quitting means giving up a drug as well as whole collection of habits. Some people successfully quit, while others spend years trying, only to relapse. Now, science suggests there may be a biological component to quitting.  

A just released study looks at a brain circuit that inhibits habitual behavior—the things we do without thinking. For long-time smokers, there's a whole process that happens almost without thinking: taking out that cigarette, lighting it, inhaling. It satisfies that craving. "A pack-a-day smoker places a cigarette in their mouth a few hundred times a day over years," said Brett Froeliger, the study's lead author, in a statement. "It becomes automated."

This kind of behavior typically happens without us really thinking about it—that's what makes it automated, after all. But there's a part of the brain that can rein in these behaviors, called the inhibitory control network. It comes into play when you consciously try not to do something you'd otherwise do without thinking. It's also a pathway through which communication is often disrupted for smokers. 

So researchers decided to examine whether it had some effect on quitting smoking. They started with smokers who'd committed to quit, asking them to perform a task that required inhibiting an automatic response. While having their brains monitored by functional MRI, they were asked to hit a key every time a colored circle appeared on screen, except on the rare occasion when a certain color appeared. Because that was an exception, striking the key became automatic: It took effort not to hit the key. 

Researchers could see how hard the inhibitory control networks worked in each smoker. At the conclusion of the study, they noticed that those who'd successfully quit had lower responses across the network, and stronger communication between a couple key parts of it. It seemed that their brains didn't have to work as hard to inhibit the automated behavior. 

A follow-up study showed similar results over a much shorter time span. This time, smokers were given an open pack of cigarettes (their brand, of course), a lighter, and an ashtray. For every six minutes they didn't smoke, they'd receive a dollar—a small incentive for them to inhibit their automated behavior. Again, those with stronger functional connections in their inhibitory control networks were able to resist longer. They were apparently better able to control their unthinking behavior.

It all suggests that there's a biological component to quitting smoking: How your brain works matters, and it may work differently than someone else trying to quit. The next step, according to the researchers, is looking for ways (whether behavioral or pharmaceutical) to strengthen communication in the inhibitory control pathway. That could give current smokers the brain boost they need to not take that next puff. 

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