Belief about nicotine content in cigarette may change brain activity, craving

September 13, 2016, Center for BrainHealth
Smokers showed significant ventral anterior insula activation related to both market value r and post-smoking craving only when they were told "nicotine in cigarette" and smoked nicotine but not in other conditions. Credit: Gu et al., 2016

How the brain responds to nicotine depends on a smoker's belief about the nicotine content in a cigarette, according to new research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

The study, recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, found that smoking a nicotine cigarette but believing that it lacked nicotine failed to satisfy cravings related to . Contrary to their expectations, researchers found that in order to satisfy nicotine cravings, smokers had to not only smoke a cigarette with nicotine but also believe that they were smoking nicotine.

"These results suggest that for drugs to have an effect on a person, he or she needs to believe that the drug is present," said Dr. Xiaosi Gu, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the study's lead author.

The scientists used imaging (fMRI) to capture neural activity in the insula cortex, a region of the brain that plays a role in diverse functions such as bodily perception and self-awareness. The insula cortex is also associated with drug cravings and addiction, Gu said.

Twenty-four chronic, nicotine-addicted smokers participated in the double-blind study. Over four visits, participants were twice given a nicotine-containing cigarette and twice a placebo. With each type of cigarette, they were once accurately told what type they had and once told the opposite.

"We examined the impact of beliefs about cravings prior to and after smoking while also measuring neural activity," said Gu, who also serves as the head of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth.

Each visit, participants underwent an fMRI scan and were administered a cigarette, but each visit tested a different condition:

  • Believes the cigarette contains nicotine but receives placebo.
  • Believes the cigarette does not contain nicotine but receives a nicotine cigarette.
  • Believes the cigarette contains nicotine and receives nicotine.
  • Believes the cigarette does not contain nicotine and receives placebo.
Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, was part of a multi-institutional team of researchers that showed belief about the presence of nicotine affects cravings and brain activity. The discovery was published in Frontiers of Psychiatry. Credit: Jim Stroup/Virginia Tech

After smoking the provided cigarette, participants completed a reward learning task while undergoing fMRI. They rated their levels of craving before smoking the cigarette and after the task.

The fMRI scans showed significant that correlated to both craving and learning signals when participants smoked a nicotine cigarette and believed its nicotine content was genuine. However, but believing it was a placebo did not produce the same brain signals.

Results from this study support previous findings that beliefs can alter a drug's effects on craving, providing insight into possible avenues for novel methods of addiction treatments.

Explore further: E-cig liquid nicotine containers often mislabeled

More information: Xiaosi Gu et al, Belief about Nicotine Modulates Subjective Craving and Insula Activity in Deprived Smokers, Frontiers in Psychiatry (2016). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00126

Related Stories

E-cig liquid nicotine containers often mislabeled

July 28, 2016
(HealthDay)—Containers that hold liquid nicotine for electronic cigarettes may not be labeled with the correct amount of nicotine, a new study says.

New method measures nicotine delivery from e-cigarettes

March 22, 2016
The effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a smoking substitute will likely rely on whether they can consistently provide the amount of nicotine a smoker needs to resist the desire to return to traditional cigarettes.

New study evaluates nicotine's relationship to body weight and food intake

May 18, 2016
A study published today in Nicotine & Tobacco Research demonstrates in a carefully controlled series of studies that the self-administration of nicotine by rats suppresses body weight gain independent of food intake.

Smokers consume same amount of cigarettes regardless of nicotine levels

August 22, 2014
Cigarettes with very low levels of nicotine may reduce addiction without increasing exposure to toxic chemicals, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.

E-cigarette use among college students—helpful aid or risky enabler?

June 30, 2016
Electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use continues to rise, and current data regarding use of e-cigarettes among college students are needed. The study, "Electronic Cigarette Use Among College Students: Links to Gender, Race/Ethnicity, ...

Progressively reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes may not lead smokers to quit

July 22, 2015
The US Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009, permits the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards for cigarette nicotine content. The FDA is accordingly supporting research into ...

Recommended for you

Researchers investigate changes in white matter in mice exposed to low-frequency brain stimulation

June 19, 2018
A team of researchers at the University of Oregon has learned more about the mechanism involved in mouse brain white matter changes as it responds to stimulation. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy ...

Left, right and center: mapping emotion in the brain

June 19, 2018
According to a radical new model of emotion in the brain, a current treatment for the most common mental health problems could be ineffective or even detrimental to about 50 percent of the population.

Often overlooked glial cell is key to learning and memory

June 18, 2018
Glial cells surround neurons and provide support—not unlike hospital staff and nurses supporting doctors to keep operations running smoothly. These often-overlooked cells, which include oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, ...

Neuroscientists map brain's response to cold touch

June 18, 2018
Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists have mapped the feeling of cool touch to the brain's insula in a mouse model. The findings, published in the June 15 issue of Journal of Comparative Neurology, provide an experimental ...

Electrically stimulating the brain may restore movement after stroke

June 18, 2018
UC San Francisco scientists have improved mobility in rats that had experienced debilitating strokes by using electrical stimulation to restore a distinctive pattern of brain cell activity associated with efficient movement. ...

iReadMore app improves reading ability of stroke patients

June 18, 2018
A new smart app designed to improve the reading ability of people who have suffered a stroke provides 'significant' improvements, a UCL study has found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.