E-cigs allow scientists a peek into a smoker’s brain

  • Fitness
  • Monday, 24 Nov 2014

Brain scans with fMRI of e-cigarette smokers puffing away allow scientists to figure out the power of addiction.

The cigarette made it difficult for those who want to study what happens to the brain mid-smoke. With e-cigarettes becoming more popular, British scientists are able to put a smoker into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and scan people while they puffed.

In a small pilot study, the researchers used electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, to mimic the behavioural aspects of smoking tobacco cigarettes, and say future studies could help scientists understand why smoking is so addictive.

E-cigarettes produce a nicotine-laced vapour, hence the new term “vaping”. Their popularity has sparked fierce debate about the risks and benefits. Some public health experts say they could help millions quit tobacco cigarettes, while others argue they could “normalise” the habit and lure children into smoking.

While that argument rages, tobacco kills some 6 million people a year, and the World Health Organization estimates that could rise beyond 8 million by 2030.

Matt Wall, an imaging scientist at Imperial College London who led the study using e-cigarettes, says he was not aiming to pass judgment on their rights or wrongs, but to use them to dig deeper into smoking addiction.

The fact that other forms of nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches or gum, have had only limited success in getting hardened smokers to quit suggests they are hooked on more than just nicotine, he notes.

“There’s something unique about the drug (nicotine) and the delivery system – the smoking – combined which makes it really, really addictive,” he says.

And by analysing the brains of people “smoking” or “vaping” e-cigarettes, scientists can study the brain effects of what he called the “the behavioural and sensory repertoire of smoking”.

Until now, it was impossible to monitor these effects with conventional cigarettes due to the difficulty of having people smoke in the confined space of an MRI scanner. But because e-cigarettes produce water vapour and do not burn, Wall’s team could record brain activity with each drag.

Wall says the study was not large enough to draw any firm conclusions yet, although it did show interesting activity in brain areas linked to reward and addiction, and in areas involved in perception of taste and smell.

“E-cigarettes... provide a very good simulation of traditional smoking (and) we have shown that using e-cigarettes with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is an excellent paradigm for direct evaluation of the effects of smoking on human neurophysiology,” he says.

The plan now is to conduct larger studies.

Wall’s findings were presented at the Global Addiction Conference in Rio de Janeiro. – Reuters

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