Thursday, January 25, 2007

After stroke, he forgot to smoke

A heavy smoker who suffered a stroke and thereafter "forgot" to smoke provided researchers with an important clue to the brain anatomy of addictive cravings.

This stroke victim's brain was damaged in an area called the insula, a pair of regions deep within the folds of the brain that had been previously implicated in addiction. (Drawing) The insula of cocaine addicts "lights up" in brain imaging studies when shown enticing images of the drug.

Now a study of nearly 70 heavy smokers who had suffered various types of brain damage confirms that damage or destruction of the insula took away, or drastically reduced, nicotine cravings. Of the 19 subjects with insula damage, twelve stopped smoking immediately without experiencing cravings. Smokers with damage to other regions of the brain had a much more difficult time; only four of them quit smoking with relative ease.

The study, by Antoine Bechara (photo), a neuroscientist at the University Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues, is published in today's edition of Science. Although brain damage is hardly a recommended treatment for smokers who want to quit, researchers say the findings provide important insight into the biological basis of addictive behaviors. Details from Science online. Interesting discussion by Carl T. Hall, science writer of the San Francisco Chronicle, here.

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