Smoking May Prime the Brain for Relapse


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?