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    Visual craving suppressants

    04/14/2010

    The photograph of a lit cigarette arouses a desire for nicotine in smokers. “Not necessarily,” say psychologists from the University of Würzburg. As they found out, some photographs even manage to trigger processes in the brain that are likely to suppress craving for this drug.

    There are photographs that are capable of whipping up a smoker’s craving for the next cigarette. Pictures that show the start of the smoking ritual, such as a freshly lit cigarette, are particularly good at this. They activate the so-called reward centers in the brain. But the power of photography also works in the opposite direction: “We have established for the first time that pictures showing the end of the smoking ritual not only do not activate the addiction network in the brain, they even suppress it,” explains Professor Paul Pauli.

    The Chairman of the Department of Psychology I at the University of Würzburg has been researching nicotine dependency for a long time. The findings of his latest investigation, which he conducted in collaboration with psychologists from the University of Giessen as part of the research group “Emotion and Behavior” funded by the German Research Foundation, were recently published in the renowned journal Neuropsychopharmacology. The researchers now wish to build on this by examining whether these photographs can also be used to reduce the urge to smoke, for example within the context of treatment to help people quit smoking.

    The course of the study

    In this study, the psychologists showed pictures depicting the start and end of the smoking ritual to both smokers and nonsmokers. “Some of the cigarettes visible had been freshly lit, others were almost completely burnt down, and others still lay stubbed out in the ashtray,” says Pauli. The fact that a freshly lit cigarette triggers a far greater craving in a smoker than one that has been stubbed out was already known to the scientists from earlier studies. “What we did not know, however, was whether there are stimuli that even suppress the reward centers in the brain,” comments Pauli.

    To answer this question, the scientists not only presented their test subjects with different photographs, they also recorded the responses they triggered in the brain using a magnetic resonance imager.

    The outcome of the study

    The outcome: pictures of a freshly lit cigarette activate the addiction network in the brain, particularly centers that influence the expectation of a reward. According to the psychologists, these activations are responsible for the craving for the drug. It is a very different story with images of stubbed-out butts in an ashtray: when these were shown, even deactivations were recorded in these parts of the brain, in comparison with control conditions. “So, while these stimuli that mark the end of the smoke are very clearly associated with smoking, they appear to suppress the addiction network in the brain,” says Pauli.

    Further investigations needed

    The finding that the activity of the addiction network in the brain can be suppressed by specific stimuli is, the psychologists believe, an important step on the road to curbing smoking in certain situations. It may be that such stimuli can also be used as an aid for smokers who want to free themselves of cigarettes and of their craving for them.

    However, before that day comes, further investigations are needed, which Pauli says are already underway in Würzburg and Giessen. They are using the same pictures, but this time their effect is being examined on people who have quit smoking in the recent to the distant past.

    Neural Responses to BEGIN- and END-Stimuli of the Smoking Ritual in Nonsmokers, Nondeprived Smokers, and Deprived Smokers, Bastian Stippekohl, Markus Winkler, Ronald F Mucha, Paul Pauli, Bertram Walter, Dieter Vaitl and Rudolf Stark: Neuropsychopharmacology (2010) 35, 1209–1225; doi:10.1038/npp.2009.227

    Contact: Prof. Dr. Paul Pauli, T: +49 (0)931 312842, e-mail: pauli@psychologie.uni-wuerzburg.de

    By Gunnar Bartsch

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