A silver dollar-sized region deep in the brain called the insula is intimately involved in smoking addiction, and damage to this structure can completely erase the body's urge to smoke, researchers have discovered. The findings appear in the 26 January 2007 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
Obviously brain damage is not a treatment option for nicotine addiction, but the new results may offer leads for therapies to help smokers kick the habit or for monitoring smokers' progress while using existing therapies.
The study was largely inspired by a patient who had smoked around 40 cigarettes a day before his insula was damaged by a stroke and then quit immediately after. He told the researchers that his body "forgot the urge to smoke."
The insula receives information from other parts of the body and is thought to help translate those signals into something we subjectively feel, such as hunger, pain, or craving for a drug. Compared to other brain regions, the insula has not attracted very much attention in drug addiction research until now, but some imaging studies have shown that this region is activated by drug-associated cues, such as the sight of people doing drugs or drug paraphernalia.
"One of the most difficult problems in any form of addiction is the difficulty in stopping the urge to smoke, to take a drug, or to eat for that matter. Now we have identified a brain target for further research into dealing with that urge," said study author Antoine Bechara of the University of Southern California and the University of Iowa.
"This kind of study is quite forward-looking. In addition to investigating a basic scientific mechanism underlying drug addiction, these authors have come up with innovative ideas about how we may be able to treat addiction and prevent relapse," said Science senior editor Peter Stern.
Though intriguing, the possibility of i
Contact: Natasha Pinol
American Association for the Advancement of Science