Smokers' Brains Perk Up at Positive Cigarette Images: Study

WEDNESDAY, March 12, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Cigarettes might "trick" smokers' brains to respond more strongly to positive images of smoking than to negative images, a small, new study suggests.

Researchers used brain scans to assess the emotional responses of 30 smokers as they looked at images of smoking-related consequences, such as lung cancer; other disturbing images not related to smoking, such as an old man on his deathbed; and positive images of smoking.

"We observed a bias depending on how smoking is portrayed," study first author Le-Anh Dinh-Williams, a student at the Montreal Mental Health University Institute, said in a University of Montreal news release.

"For example, the brains of the smokers in our study were more aroused by images that showed smoking in a positive light than by images that encouraged them to stop," Dinh-Williams said. "They were also more affected by [negative] non-smoking related images than by images of the specific negative consequences of smoking."

The study appeared in the April issue of the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.

Dinh-Williams said about 20 percent of adults in Canada and the United States smoke even though they know it's dangerous.

"We wanted to understand why knowing about the negative health impacts of tobacco does not prevent smokers from lighting up," Dinh-Williams said.

About 70 percent to 95 percent of smokers who quit will start smoking again within a year, the researchers said.

Study co-author Stephane Potvin, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Montreal, said there are a host of factors that make it hard for people to quit smoking. "Part of the explanation could certainly be because cigarettes 'trick' the brains of smokers," he said in the news release.

"Specifically, we discovered that the brain regions associated with motivation are more active in smokers when they see pleasurable images associated with cigarettes and less active when smokers are confronted with the negative effects of smoking," said Potvin, a researcher at the Montreal Mental Health University Institute.

More information

The American Cancer Society offers a guide to quitting smoking.

SOURCE: University of Montreal, news release, March 10, 2014

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