News about the dangers of smoking keeps getting worse and worse, but smoking is an addiction, so wanting to quit is rarely sufficient. Kicking the habit is notoriously challenging, with newly quit smokers experiencing a host of symptoms ranging from anxiety to severe depression.
The American Cancer Society reports that only 4% to 7% of smokers are able to quit during any single attempt. Even for smokers who replace the nicotine in cigarettes with nicotine patches and gums, quitting is extremely difficult, suggesting the addiction is about more than just nicotine. According to a small study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, smokers’ beliefs about nicotine may affect their ability to quit.
Do Beliefs about Nicotine Really Matter?
Nicotine stimulates areas of the brain associated with motivation and pleasure, so it’s no wonder that people attempting to quit struggle with uncomfortable emotions. But research has repeatedly shown the power of the placebo effect; whether people think they are taking a drug can alter their health and behavior. The placebo effect might help explain why 25% of smokers successfully quit with nicotine replacement therapy; perhaps their belief in the power of nicotine products to help is just as important as the nicotine itself.
Researchers wanted to test whether cigarettes might result in a placebo effect. They divided 24 smokers into two groups. One group thought it was smoking nicotine-free cigarettes, while the other group believed it was smoking traditional cigarettes. In reality, both groups smoked traditional cigarettes with nicotine.
Each participant underwent an MRI scan after smoking. Smokers played a reward-based game during the scan, allowing researchers to explore activity in areas of the brain thought to be associated with reward. Smokers who believed they had smoked nicotine-containing cigarettes had more activity in reward-associated brain regions than those who thought they smoked nicotine-free cigarettes. This, researchers say, suggests that beliefs about nicotine may alter the way the brain reacts to the drug. For smokers struggling to quit, changing these beliefs could help improve their chances of staying smoke-free.
- A word about success rates for quitting smoking. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/healthy/stayawayfromtobacco/guidetoquittingsmoking/guide-to-quitting-smoking-success-rates
- Beliefs about nicotine ‘may override its effects on the brain’ (2015, March 1). Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/290095.php
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