January 12, 2012

Why Crave a Cigarette?

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Smokers payed more attention to objects associated with the smoking experience

(dailyRx News) Pavlov's dog was trained to salivate when it heard a bell, thinking it was dinner. The same is true for smokers and non-related imagery.

A new study shows a link between a smoker's attention to non-smoking related imagery. By associating an image, such as a pyramid, with smoking it lead to increased attention by the smoker.

This can lead to a better understanding in why it's so hard for a smoker to quit.

"Don't quit alone, ask your doctor about smoking cessation programs."

The study was conducted by Marianne Littel and Dr. Ingmar H. A. Franken from the Institute of Psychology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and involved 30 smokers and 31 non-smokers. The researchers believed that conditioning was involved with smoking.

To test that they measured participants attention was measured by electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the brain's electrical activity.

Conditioning links one type of stimulus with another. The classic example is of Dr. Ivan Pavlov who trained his dogs to salivate when they heard a bell ringing. Dr. Pavlov rang the bell when it was dinner so the dogs then associated the bell with food and began to salivate.

Higher-order conditioning involves another stimulus being linked to the stimulus that caused the reaction. The study uses the example of training the dog to react to a light being switched on because it associates the light with the bell and begins to salivate.

The researchers used 40 smoking-related pictures, people smoking or pictures of cigarettes, and 40 pictures not related with smoking. These images were then paired with an object, either a pyramid or a cube.

Using the EEG, all participants paid more attention to the object that was paired with the smoking imagery than to the object that was paired with non-smoking imagery. This effect was greater in smokers than non-smokers.

This showed higher-order conditioning to smoking according to the researchers. Smokers also self-reported an increase in a craving for a cigarette after viewing the object associated with the smoking-imagery.

A person may say they only smoke when they go out to a club. That person may condition themselves to smoke while out in a club. If a person then relates drinking with going out to a club, the person may condition themselves to crave a cigarette while drinking.

This would make quitting smoking that much more difficult because there is now a secondary connection to craving a cigarette.

The reason why it is so hard to quit and why so many smokers may relapse is because there are many complex connections smokers have made to the process of smoking. Future studies can perhaps find other associations that can help ease cravings which will make quitting easier.

The study was published in the January edition of BMC Neuroscience.

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
January 12, 2012

Last Updated:
January 12, 2012