Why quitting smoking is harder for some

  • AFP
  • Updated: Jun 18, 2014 14:40 IST

Researchers have identified a brain function that indicates whether reward-based smoking cessation strategies will be effective on certain smokers.

In the study, researchers performed brain scans on smokers deprived of cigarettes for at least 12 hours and found that the most reward-motivated among them were the least likely to quit.

Read: Why passive smoking is worse than smoking


"We believe that our findings may help to explain why some smokers find it so difficult to quit smoking," said Stephen J Wilson, assistant professor of psychology, Penn State. "Namely, potential sources of reinforcement for giving up smoking -- for example, the prospect of saving money or improving health -- may hold less value for some individuals and, accordingly, have less impact on their behavior."

Researchers first told smokers they would be allowed to smoke in two hours.

Fully intending to tempt them, they then told them there had been a mistake and that they would be allowed to smoke in 15 minutes.

Before allowing them to smoke, researchers promised subjects $1 for every five minutes they did not smoke.


The test group consisted of 44 smokers between ages 18 and 45 who smoked a minimum of 10 cigarettes per day. Researchers observed the responses of the ventral striatum, the area of the brain responsible for motivation and goal-oriented behavior.

Those with the weakest responses of the striatum were less likely to refrain from smoking.

Wilson believes his research will lead to solutions in identifying the most problematic smokers and develop new cessation methods specific to their needs.

"Our results suggest that it may be possible to identify individuals prospectively by measuring how their brains respond to rewards, an observation that has significant conceptual and clinical implications," said Wilson.

"For example, particularly 'at-risk' smokers could potentially be identified prior to a quit attempt and be provided with special interventions designed to increase their chances for success."

The study was published online by the American Psychological Association.

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