Objective: The authors sought to increase understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in cigarette addiction by identifying neural substrates modulated by visual smoking cues in nicotine-deprived smokers.
Method: Event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to detect brain activation after exposure to smoking-related images in a group of nicotine-deprived smokers and a nonsmoking comparison group. Subjects viewed a pseudo-random sequence of smoking images, neutral nonsmoking images, and rare targets (photographs of animals). Subjects pressed a button whenever a rare target appeared.
Results: In smokers, the fMRI signal was greater after exposure to smoking-related images than after exposure to neutral images in mesolimbic dopamine reward circuits known to be activated by addictive drugs (right posterior amygdala, posterior hippocampus, ventral tegmental area, and medial thalamus) as well as in areas related to visuospatial attention (bilateral prefrontal and parietal cortex and right fusiform gyrus). In nonsmokers, no significant differences in fMRI signal following exposure to smoking-related and neutral images were detected. In most regions studied, both subject groups showed greater activation following presentation of rare target images than after exposure to neutral images.
Conclusions: In nicotine-deprived smokers, both reward and attention circuits were activated by exposure to smoking-related images. Smoking cues are processed like rare targets in that they activate attentional regions. These cues are also processed like addictive drugs in that they activate mesolimbic reward regions.