Smoking and Other Addictions Exposed
By: Beth McHugh 2007
Most of us have met someone who smokes and despite considerable effort, just cannot manage to shake the habit. Perhaps you are one of them. Scientists have known for many years that some people are able to give up nicotine and other potentially addictive substances with relative ease. Others struggle, often giving up for a significant period of time, only to succumb to the call of their favorite poison. Others simply can’t give up at all.
Recent research has come up with further interesting evidence about individual differences in brain structure which influence the likelihood of addiction occurring. Scientists have pinpointed the site in the brain responsible for nicotine addiction and this structure, known as the insula, may hold the key to addictive behaviors and ultimately their successful treatment.
The insula is an island-like structure located deep in the cerebral cortex and is associated with our thoughts and, consequently, our feelings. It is believed that the insula is involved in many forms of addictive behavior and assists in promoting thoughts and behaviors that keep people hooked on nicotine and possibly other addictive substances. This in no way implies that the insula is malfunctioning when a person becomes addicted to a substance, only that scientists have been able to link the function of this structure to certain addictive behaviors.
The link was discovered after it was noted that one particularly heavy smoker in the US lost their dependency on nicotine after a stroke damaged his insula. Previously unable to give up smoking, this patient quit immediately after suffering the stroke, with no withdrawal symptoms either physical or emotional. His brain simply “forgot” the urge to smoke.
Subsequent studies of other heavy smokers revealed similar results. Those who had received damage to the insula as a part of their stroke symptoms lost the addiction to nicotine. So what does that mean to the average man or woman on the street who is struggling to give up nicotine?
The insula has also been linked to other emotional behaviors such as
overeating, the experience of pain, and craving for certain substances.
Armed with this knowledge, researchers will now be able to better tailor
treatment for addiction, not only nicotine, but to other addictive substances.
This would involve target-specific drug and cognitive behavioral techniques.
This research provides hope for those who find themselves unable to
successfully eliminate nicotine from their lives, as well as helping
scientists to further unlock the mystery of the mind.