When a smoker sees someone else smoking, the sight triggers a craving to light up too. For people who have quit smoking, these impulses make them more likely to start smoking again. But new research from Yale about the neural mechanisms of addiction suggests smokers -- and possibly people hooked on other substances -- may be able to curb their cravings by using their own thoughts.
Hedy Kober of Yale University School of Medicine and her colleagues designed an experiment to test what happened when 21 smokers used a simple strategy from cognitive behavioral therapy. While they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine that monitored their brain activity, they were shown pictures of cigarettes and high-fat food.
The participants, who hadn’t eaten or smoked for two hours beforehand, had been trained to summon thoughts about cigarettes or food in two time frames. Thinking “now” focused their minds on how good it might feel to smoke or eat. Thinking “later,” they concentrated on the long-term consequences of smoking or eating unhealthy food.
When the volunteers were instructed to think "later," the brain region for cognition and regulating emotions lit up on the scans. But the regions for emotions and craving showed decreased activity compared with when the “now” instruction was given. That suggests that craving can be reduced by thinking about long-term consequences.
“A lot of smokers say they feel like they are out of control,” Kober said in an interview about the study appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “This shows that they can control their cravings.”
The difference in craving between “now” and “later” states was greater for cigarettes than food. Kober said further research is needed to see what might happen with other addictive substances. Other experiments could also test the hypothesis that people whose cognitive systems are impaired might be less able to control their cravings.
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