Neural activity during health messaging predicts reductions in smoking above and beyond self-report

Health Psychol. 2011 Mar;30(2):177-85. doi: 10.1037/a0022259.


Objective: The current study tested whether neural activity in response to messages designed to help smokers quit could predict smoking reduction, above and beyond self-report.

Design: Using neural activity in an a priori region of interest (a subregion of medial prefrontal cortex [MPFC]), in response to ads designed to help smokers quit smoking, we prospectively predicted reductions in smoking in a community sample of smokers (N = 28) who were attempting to quit smoking. Smoking was assessed via expired carbon monoxide (CO; a biological measure of recent smoking) at baseline and 1 month following exposure to professionally developed quitting ads.

Results: A positive relationship was observed between activity in the MPFC region of interest and successful quitting (increased activity in MPFC was associated with a greater decrease in expired CO). The addition of neural activity to a model predicting changes in CO from self-reported intentions, self-efficacy, and ability to relate to the messages significantly improved model fit, doubling the variance explained (R²self-report = .15, R²self-report + neural activity = .35, R²change = .20).

Conclusion: Neural activity is a useful complement to existing self-report measures. In this investigation, we extend prior work predicting behavior change based on neural activity in response to persuasive media to an important health domain and discuss potential psychological interpretations of the brain-behavior link. Our results support a novel use of neuroimaging technology for understanding the psychology of behavior change and facilitating health promotion.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Persuasive Communication*
  • Self Report*
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*