Friday, January 26, 2007

Science catches up to observation

There was anecdotal evidence of just this around the nation for decades, just now a "study" confirms?

Damage to brain region helps smokers quit
Thu Jan 25, 3:13 PM ET

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Damage to the brain "insula" -- a silver dollar-sized area located deep in the brain, surrounded by the cerebral cortex, disrupts the addiction to cigarette smoking and makes kicking the habit much easier, according to research reported in the journal Science Friday.

This finding could lead to the development of novel anti-smoking agents.

Previous reports have linked the insula with conscious urges. In addition, senior author Dr. Antoine Bechara, from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues previously encountered a two-pack per day cigarette smoker who was able to stop smoking with little difficulty after experiencing stroke-related damage to the insula.

These findings led the researchers to hypothesize that damage to the insula may help break the addiction to smoking.

To investigate, the authors compared smoking cessation in 19 smokers who sustained damage to the insula and 50 smokers who sustained damage to other brain regions.

Spot in brain may control smoking urge
Thu Jan 25, 5:44 PM ET

WASHINGTON - Damage to a silver dollar-sized spot deep in the brain seems to wipe out the urge to smoke, a surprising discovery that may shed important new light on addiction. The research was inspired by a stroke survivor who claimed he simply forgot his two-pack-a-day addiction _ no cravings, no nicotine patches, not even a conscious desire to quit.

The quitting is like a light switch that went off," said Dr. Antoine Bechara of the University of Southern California, who scanned the brains of 69 smokers and ex-smokers to pinpoint the region involved. "This is very striking."

Clearly brain damage isn't a treatment option for people struggling to kick the habit.

But the finding, reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science, does point scientists toward new ways to develop anti-smoking aids by targeting this little-known brain region called the insula. And it sparked excitement among addiction specialists who expect the insula to play a key role in other addictions, too.

"It's a fantastic paper, it's a fantastic finding," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a longtime investigator of the brain's addiction pathways.

"What this study shows unequivocally is the insula is a key structure in the brain for perceiving the urges to take the drug," urges that are "the backbone of the addiction," Volkow added.

Why? The insula appears to be where the brain turns physical reactions into feelings, such as feeling anxious when your heart speeds up. When those reactions are caused by a particular substance, the insula may act like sort of a headquarters for cravings.

Some 44 million Americans smoke, and the government says more than 400,000 a year die of smoking-related illnesses. Declines in smoking have slowed in recent years, making it unlikely that the nation will reach a public health goal of reducing the rate to 12 percent by 2010.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known, and it's common for smokers to suffer repeated relapses when they try to quit.

So imagine Bechara's surprise at hearing a patient he code-named "Nathan" note nonchalantly that "my body forgot the urge to smoke" right after his stroke...

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