Most smokers quit their addictive tobacco products several times in their smoking lives. Some are so good at quitting, that they can do it three times in a month!
But what is it that makes quitting smoking so incredibly difficult? To find out, the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen recently conducted research on how the brain responds immediately after putting down the smokes.
Researchers followed 14 habitual smokers, nine men and five women between the ages of 22 and 33, who, aside from smoking, all had clean bills of health. Each participant was also a self-proclaimed morning smoker, smoking within an hour of waking. Researchers asked all 14 smokers to abstain from smoking for 12 hours.
In the morning, the participants’ brains were scanned using PET to identify which areas of the brain are active.
One PET scan was performed upon arrival at 10am, which mapped the participants’ brain activity while they were experiencing withdrawal. The participants were then allowed to smoke again. Three more PET scans were conducted 15, 60 and 105 minutes after smoking to observe changes in brain activity, if any, once nicotine had been reintroduced to the body.
What they found explains quite a bit. When habitual smokers were not allowed to have a cigarette, blood flow and oxygen to the brain decreased, in some cases up to 17 percent. According to study leader Albert Gjedde, this is comparable to a “dementia-like condition.” After smoking a few cigarettes, participants’ brain functionality returned to normal after around an hour and a half.
According to the study, nicotine increases brain activity by helping the brain to metabolise energy. With prolonged use, nicotine starts desensitising brain receptors, thereby increasing the brain’s need for more nicotine. For chronic smokers, the absence of nicotine in the system makes it difficult for the brain to function optimally.
This explains why it is so incredibly hard for smokers to quit smoking – the brain underperforms in the absence of nicotine. The researchers therefore recommend that smokers gradually reduce their nicotine intake, as it is not only much easier and healthier for your brain, it also increases your chances of kicking the habit for good. M