The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports in Science that some smokers with damage to a part of the brain called the insula have their addiction to nicotine practically eliminated. The findings provide new insights into the role the insula plays in smoking and could lead to new smoking cessation treatments. “Research that identifies a way to alter the function of this area could have major implications for smokers and addiction treatment in general,” said NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow.
The study involved smokers who had experienced some degree of brain damage resulting in lesions on the insula, as well as smokers whose brain injuries did not include damage to the insula. The researchers found that those smokers with insula lesions were 136 times more likely to have their addiction to nicotine erased than smokers with other brain injuries.
“Participants with damage to the insula were overwhelmingly more likely to experience a true disruption of the urge to smoke, characterized by an almost immediate cessation of smoking with no reported struggles to maintain their abstinence,” said study leader, Dr. Antoine Bechara, of the University of Southern California. “We know that the insula plays a role in the desire to smoke by anticipating physical effects brought on by emotions such as those induced by environmental cues. Thus, damage to the insula could lead smokers to feel that their bodies have ‘forgotten’ the urge to smoke.”