Self-aware brain helps smokers quit
How the brain responds to a personalized quit-smoking message can show whether someone will still be smoking four months later, a U.S. study shows.
The research, by a team at the University of Michigan, was published this week in Nature Neuroscience, and shows that smokers who are more self-aware are more likely to kick the habit when messages are tailored to their lifestyle.
For the study, the researchers recruited 91 smokers interested in quitting — 44 females and 47 males — who smoked an average 16.7 cigarettes a day.
The participants were involved in three face-to-face sessions and follow-up telephone interviews.
In the first session, the participants answered a series of questions about their health and attitudes towards smoking and quitting. Their answers were then used to create tailored quit-smoking messages.
For the second session, the participants had two MRI scans while completing two tasks — a task to examine brain regions associated with processing quit-smoking messages and another task to identify brain regions involved in self-related processing.
In the final session the participants completed a tailored quit-smoking program and were told to quit smoking.
Four months later, each participant was interviewed over the phone to find out whether they had quit smoking with 45 describing themselves as quitters.
Quitters avoid stress triggers
Lead author and research assistant Professor Hannah Chua, of the University of Michigan, says the MRI scans showed that tailored quit-smoking messages activated a region of the brain known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.
This is an area of the brain that is also activated by thinking about oneself, she says.
Four months after the study, those that showed the most activation in this area were those who were most likely to have quit, says Chua.
"Our findings suggest that the advantage of tailored health messages in promoting a desirable health-behaviour change stems at least in part from enhanced engagement of self-related processes evoked by tailoring," she says.
Further, she says, quitters were more likely to change their behavioural response to stress and to avoid situations that trigger smoking following the tailored smoking-cessation program.
Chua says the findings have relevance across the spectrum in public health communication.
She says that the neuroimaging methods could be another powerful weapon in the arsenal of anti-smoking tools, and will add to the psychoneurobiological understanding of behaviour change. She says that will lead to improved tailored health intervention programs.
However, Professor Simon Chapman of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, says although the findings are interesting, the research "has virtually no practical application" in stopping people smoking.
"[About] 75 per cent of smokers quit unaided, and only about three per cent ever even call a quitline — only a tiny, tiny proportion of smokers are in the least bit interested in getting 'tailored' help," he says.