Nicotine Tricks the Brain to Connect Smoking with Environment: Study
Most smokers or former smokers will tell you that the urge to smoke is strongest when a person is drinking alcohol. Sometimes, a person may not even feel a desire to smoke, but as soon as they are exposed to alcoholic beverages, they crave a cigarette. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine report that the culprit is nicotine, which "tricks" the brain into establishing memory connections between environmental cues and smoking behavior. The findings of this study were published in the journal Neuron.
Our brain typically establishes associations between things that support our survival and environmental cues so that our behavior is directed towards success. When we act in ways that are beneficial to our well-being, the brain sends reward signals," says Dr. John A. Dani, a professor of neuroscience at BCM and co-author of the study. "However, nicotine commands this subconscious learning process in the brain, causing us to behave as if smoking is a positive behavior.
Dani explains that events related to smoking could potentially become clues that prompt people to smoke. These clues are too familiar to former or current smokers, and can include finishing a meal, having a drink, or even driving. To analyze these associations, Dani and his team decided to record the brain activity of mice when they were exposed to nicotine, allowing them to roam freely in two separate chambers, one containing nicotine and the other containing a benign saline solution.
Researchers recorded the amount of time mice spent in each compartment while simultaneously monitoring activity in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory creation. Dani stated, "The changes in brain activity were truly remarkable. Nicotine strengthened the connections between neurons, sometimes up to 200% more than when saline was administered. This strengthening of connections is the foundation for new memory formation.
It's no surprise that mice have learned to spend more time in compartments containing nicotine. "We found that nicotine can enhance neuronal synaptic connections only when the so-called reward center sends dopamine signals. This is also a key process in creating memory associations, even for negative behaviors such as smoking.
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