Smoking May Prime the Brain for Relapse

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Many people find smoking tobacco pleasurable. What does it mean for an activity to be "pleasurable?" In neurological terms, it means, in part, that the activity either boosts dopamine production in the brain or mimicks it. Now researchers at Emory University the National Institute on Drug Abuse are reporting that they find physical changes in the brains of smokers that look like similar to changes found in the brains of frequent heroin and cocaine users. Increased dopamine apparently changes a couple of (unnamed) enzymes in the brains of smokers, heroin and cocaine users. The researchers report that they

"found elevated levels of these enzymes in the smokers, but, more interesting, levels remained high, as compared to nonsmokers, in the ventral midbrains of former smokers. This suggests that the changes persist long after smoking has ceased and could contribute to drug relapse."

Maybe the brains of former smokers are primed to relapse. However, my own experience suggests that there must be more to it than that. I am a former three-pack per day smoker (ten years of Camels, Merits, Vantages and eventually Carltons). I quit about 20 years ago. Yet, I do smoke an occasional cigar without "relapsing" back into the throes of my former nicotine "addiction."

In any case, I'm far from being alone as a former smoker. Indeed, the dramatic reduction in smoking prevalence in the U.S. over the past 50 years didn't happen just because a lot smokers died off. There are a lot of former smokers. Something besides brain cravings for immediate pleasure must be going on. In my case, I wonder what neurochemicals correspond with a strong and enduring fear of disease and death?

NEXT: Soulless Patrol

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  1. I find it interesting that the one vice they allow in rehab is…smoking. An addiction probably more harmful than that which put them there is tolerated as the former addicts try to counsel the current addicts, most of whom will fall off the wagon once they’re out. I guess they figure they would have no chance at success instead of a slim chance if they banned smoking too. But the irony remains.

  2. There are a lot of former smokers. Something besides brain cravings for immediate pleasure must be going on.

    None dare call it “Reason”!!! 🙂

  3. my experience:

    I quit smoking in 2000 when I quit my job. I got down to three cigs a day in two weeks, no sweat. Getting down to zero was much harder. After my last cigarette, it took six months before I had a day that I didn’t crave them. The thing that has kept me from smoking another one was my last one.

    After being smoke free for a couple of weeks, I went to a downtown bar packing one lone cancer-stick. I figured one cig every couple of weeks would be cool. After one drag I knew I couldn’t smoke ‘once in a while’. It was SO GOOD. The memory of that last one has kept me from having another for seven years now.

    I still get a twinge now and then, like when I walk into a smoke filled room and smell that foul, stale, stench. Also I miss the camaraderie of the ‘lepers’. Huddling in the freezing rain outside a large building can be a very bonding experience.

    Like Ron I enjoy the occasional cigar.

  4. Fydor, that may be the first time anyone has punned the name of the magazine in the comments in a non-derogatory way. Congratulations.

    My understanding, as Ron seems to imply at the begining of the thread, is that the chemical mechanism (dopamine) from which we derive pleasure from cigarettes, coke and heroin is pretty much the same mechanism by which we get pleasure out of say, our favorite sports team winning or falling in love. So the point that cigarettes affect us neurologically in a similar manner as coke and herion is kind of silly, as pretty much anything pleasurable in life does the same thing.

    Of course, personal experience suggests falling in love can be at least as self-destrucive as getting hooked on coke or heroin, so maybe they do have a point.

  5. There are always different levels of addiction, tied to different dopamine reactions to the drugs. One person may be a slave to nicotine their entire life while another might throw them away after 20 years and quit cold turkey with no side effects or relapse. The dopamine mechanism is accurate, it is just different levels of reactions by different people that makes the crucial difference as to how addicted you become.

  6. A correction if I may: The researchers were from NIDA, not Emory. Mike Kuhar (my doctoral mentor) at Emory was just providing color commentary. The enzymes in question are PKA and adenylate cyclase, two downstream signals produced by activation of dopamine receptors (as well as a fair number of other g-protein coupled receptors).

    This really doesn’t seem like that big a deal, it is basically precisely what one would expect.
    As to your last question the answer isn’t clear, but probably it has to do more with where (prefrontal cortex versus striatum) than what chemical. Although there is a wierd story developing about Ketamine as an anti-depressant/ anti-addictive agent….

  7. hunter: Thanks for the correction. Also, I’ve heard a bit about the Ketamine thing. Let me know what else you hear.

  8. Best incentive I heard for quitting smoking came from a couple of college friends who got married when they graduated. The first time they did a joint budget [ignore pun] they discovered if they both quit smoking the cash they saved would pay for a car.

  9. Interesting thread, yet consider the (admittedly non-scientific) analysis of Allen Carr, the Englishman whose book The Easyway to Quit Smoking has cured millions of people. His basic comment was that when smokers cease attaching value to the cigarette- i.e., stop thinking they “enjoy” smoking or that smoking has any actual benefit- they find it easy to stop.

    Sounds implausible, and it worked for me. After eight years of being a heavy smoker, I quit rather easily and painlessly and haven’t had a single craving since. Granted, this was only about two and a half months ago but I feel it’s permanent 🙂

    So anyway, smoking affecting dopamine levels seems to contradict Carr’s thesis….interesting.

  10. I can see Camels, maybe even Merits but Vantages and Carltons … ugh!

    I’d rather smoke menthols.

    “… if they both quit smoking the cash they saved would pay for a car.”

    That sounds about right, especially if you have to pay full price for your smokes in certain states.

    Then again, if you smoke you can only kill yourself and maybe a few bystanders. Buy a car and you’re killing the planet, man!

    I keed.

    Full Disclosure: I smoke Cowboy Killers, aka Marlboro Red.

  11. I recently quit smoking after 20 years… from age 14 to 34. I was successful with a miraculous drug called Xyban. But, now I’ve just replaced one drug with another, only with the former being far more enjoyable.

  12. Oh wow, you mean stimulating effects in the many neurotransmitter paths might lead to new behavior? Nobody had better tell anyone about MDMA and seratonin, or other tryptamines. Or perhaps they should ask Shuglin about other things he has known and loved.

  13. “Something besides brain cravings for immediate pleasure must be going on. In my case, I wonder what neurochemicals correspond with a strong and enduring fear of disease and death?”

    Ron, maybe you are just being glib, but it ain’t neurochemicals, it is reason (not the magazine, the innate kind) that has prompted you to suffer the withdrawal symptoms and quit smoking.

    I quit smoking in 1974 and it was hard, but it is something that anybody can do if they simply have the will. It is a choice, plain and simple.

  14. I had smoked pot before I ever tried a cigarette, and the one time I tried a cig, it was so nasty that I had no temptation. It felt like putting my face over a chimney and taking a deep breath.

  15. “I find it interesting that the one vice they allow in rehab is…smoking. An addiction probably more harmful than that which put them there is tolerated as the former addicts try to counsel the current addicts, most of whom will fall off the wagon once they’re out. I guess they figure they would have no chance at success instead of a slim chance if they banned smoking too.”

    No, I think the reason they allow tobacco and don’t allow some other psychoactives is that the way most people use nicotine products, vs. the way they use most other psychoactives, doesn’t “intoxicate” in the sense that they’d be afraid you wouldn’t be “all there” when they talk to you. I’m sure they allow methylxanthine products like coffee too, same reason.

    “After one drag I knew I couldn’t smoke ‘once in a while’. It was SO GOOD. The memory of that last one has kept me from having another for seven years now.”

    That kind of thinking is totally whacked. If it’s so good, why not do it? If it’s so bad, why do it at all? But if 3 a day was good, why didn’t you keep that up?

  16. I went to some AA meetings with my uncle. They were really pretty interesting. There were all kinds of, “…and then I hit rock bottom” stories. One of my favorites was a Catholic priest who talked about how he was an alcoholic and whoremonger in New Orleans for twenty years. I was naive then so I actually believed him when he said he was chasing pussy instead of choir boys.

    That is not the point of my post though. In that meeting was this collection of addicts (alcohol first, but most of them were addicted to other drugs too). It was interesting to me even then that every one of them chain smoked and guzzled coffee. These guys were just addicts in general. I concluded that the addictive nature of people is a genetically driven susceptibility.

    By the way, I loved my uncle; he was a great guy.

  17. I have suffered depression for most my adult life and tried every pill on the market to help me with my depression and only to make me worse than I already felt. After a horrible past 7 years I finally gave up in my business and sold off everything I had and plan to file bankruptcy. My brain has had like a fog surronding it for the past many years and I also abuse alcohol. In smoking I really didnt like it as I knew it was un healty and not really me, but continued to smoke a pack a day for the last 23-24 years. I made a choice in the last 30 days I was going to have to fix me not a drug. I quit smoking with the patch and i have not felt this GREAT in 10 years! Im a firm believer that cigarette smoking effects the brain and caused much of my depression and problems in life. I began to get really worried about my brain fog and even thought I may had a stroke. Since ive quit in the last 30 days I feel alive and closier to normal than ever. Stop smoking today!

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