February 27th, 2011
01:00 PM ET
How your brain responds to anti-smoking messages may be useful in helping to kick the habit, a new study in the journal Nature Neuroscience reports.
"People who are more likely to potentially see the messages as relevant to them, they are more likely to quit," said lead author Hannah Faye Chua of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "They could feel like, 'This is me, this is how I am right now, this is how I would like to change.'"
The study looked at 91 participants who were interested in quitting smoking, and who were smoking about 17 cigarettes a day on average. They answered questions about their health, demographic and habits and attitudes relevant to smoking and the reasons preventing them from quitting.
Researchers then used the answers to create tailored smoking cessation messages. These would target the individual's personal obstacles that make it harder to quit, as well as the person's sex and other life characteristics. The study authors exposed participants to the tailored messages as well as broader statements about smoking in general and "neutral" messages not related to smoking cessation.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of participants while being exposed to these messages revealed that, for the tailored messages, specific brain regions are particularly active. But it's activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with self-awareness - specifically, judgments and decisions about one's self - that best predicts who will quit.
All participants were given a nicotine patch and an individualized session on smoking cessation, with printed materials to take home.
Four months after the brain scan, those participants who had showed the most activity in this region while viewing tailored messages were most likely to quit. Those who quit reported being better able to avoid situations that trigger smoking, and cope with stress.
The study underscores the importance of tailoring treatments to the individual, said Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
It also points to the potential for brain imaging to be used more often to establish whether a patient will respond to a particular treatment, not only in smoking cessation but for other kinds of behaviors and conditions, he said.
"It’s an important study; it’s very cleverly done and executed," he said.
The sample size of 91 participants is considered large for an imaging study. Such experiments tend to be expensive, and since there were only two possible outcomes of the experiment (responding to treatment or not) this subject pool was appropriate for statistical analysis, Peterson said.
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