Why it’s so hard to stop smoking
Apr 11, 2005 - 12:32:38 PM

New research has revealed that smokers may struggle to quit the habit because being deprived of nicotine means they lack motivation and find normally pleasurable tasks less enjoyable.

The researchers recruited 200 smokers aged between 18 and 65, all of whom admitted to smoking more than 10 cigarettes a day, to assess the effects of quitting.

The volunteers were tested twice, one week apart, and on both occasions they had refrained from smoking for at least 12 hours before testing. On each occasion they received either a lozenge containing nicotine, or a placebo lozenge that did not contain nicotine. They then performed a series of tests assessing their expectations of finding normal events pleasurable, their attention towards rewarding events, motivation, and the ability to inhibit reflexive responses, such as averting their eyes away from a moving object.

When the volunteers were deprived of nicotine they showed reduced pleasure expectations, weakened motivation and an impaired ability to inhibit reflexive responses.

The researchers argue this may be because nicotine sensitises certain circuitry in the brain and when it is removed people experience abnormalities in cognitive and psychological functioning. These abnormalities, both individually and in combination, mean would-be quitters find giving up smoking an unpleasant experience. This could contribute to the high risk of relapse and therefore make it difficult for people to quit smoking.

Dr Dawkins said: "When trying to give up the smoker loses the pleasure normally afforded directly by smoking, but exposure to, or enjoyment of, alternative sources of pleasure may also be reduced. Secondly the more that response inhibition is impaired during abstinence, the greater the difficulty in resisting the reflex response to smoke a cigarette when one is available."

The research team is currently examining smokers who have managed to quit to see if these abnormalities improve over time.

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