Introduction: The presence of cigarette-related cues has been associated with smoking relapse. These cues are believed to activate brain mechanisms underlying emotion, attention, and memory. Electroencephalography (EEG) alpha desynchronization (i.e., reduction in alpha power) has been suggested to index the engagement of these mechanisms. Analyzing EEG alpha desynchronization in response to affective and smoking cues might improve our understanding of how smokers process these cues, and the potential impact of this processing on relapse.
Methods: Before the start of a medication-assisted cessation attempt, we recorded EEG from 179 smokers during the presentation of neutral, pleasant, unpleasant, and cigarette-related pictures. Wavelet analysis was used to extract EEG alpha oscillations (8-12 Hz) in response to these pictures. Alpha oscillations were analyzed as a function of picture valence and arousal dimensions.
Results: Emotional and cigarette-related stimuli induced a higher level of alpha desynchronization (i.e., less power in the alpha frequency band) than neutral stimuli. In addition, the level of alpha desynchronization induced by cigarette-related stimuli was similar to that induced by highly arousing stimuli (i.e., erotica and mutilations).
Conclusions: These results suggest that, for smokers, cigarette-related cues are motivationally significant stimuli that may engage emotional, attentional, and memory-related neural mechanisms at a level comparable to that seen in response to highly arousing stimuli. This finding suggests that activation of emotional, attentional, and memory-related brain mechanisms may be an important contributor to cue-induced smoking relapse.