Nicotine Withdrawal Weakens Brain Interconnectivity while Quitting Smoking

As evidenced in brain scans after abstaining from smoking for 24 hours, smokers were likely to show weakened interconnectivity between brain networks, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Smokers who abstained from cigarettes showed weakened connectivity between certain large-scale networks in their brains, according to research published in JAMA Psychiatry. The effected networks were the default mode network, the executive control network, and the salience network.

Researchers from the Penn Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explored how smokers suffer from nicotine withdrawal have trouble shifting from the default network, the introspective and self-referential state, to the executive control network, demonstrating more self-control and the ability to quit smoking for good. As many as 80% of quitters end up relapsing, depending on the type of treatment received, scientists estimate.

Investigators scanned the brains of 37 healthy smokers, defined as those who smoke more than 10 cigarettes daily, aged 19-61. Each participant was scanned twice using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): first after 24 hours of biochemically confirmed abstinence and then after smoking as usual.

Results showed weaker connectivity between the salience network and the default mode network during the abstinence period, compared with normal smoking. Weakened connectivity was linked with increases in smoking urges, negative mood, and withdrawal symptoms. Thus, researchers concluded the weaker state may make it harder for smokers to quit.

“It’s very important for people who are trying to quit to be able to maintain activity within the control network— to be able to shift from thinking about yourself and your inner state to focus on your more immediate goals and plan,” Caryn Lerman, PhD, Deputy Director of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, said in a statement. “Symptoms of withdrawal are related to changes in smokers’ brains, as they adjust to being off of nicotine, and this study validates those experiences as having a biological basis.”