White matter development and tobacco smoking in young adults: A systematic review with recommendations for future research

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016 May 1;162:26-33. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.02.015. Epub 2016 Feb 27.


Background: Adolescence and young adulthood are critical vulnerability periods for initiation of tobacco smoking. White matter development is ongoing during this time and may be influenced by exposure to nicotine. Synthesis of findings from diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies of adolescent and young adult smokers may be helpful in understanding the relationship between neurodevelopment and initiation and progression of tobacco-use behaviors and in guiding further research.

Methods: A systematic literature review was conducted to identify DTI studies comparing adolescent and young adult (mean age <30 years) smokers versus nonsmokers. A total of 5 studies meeting inclusion criteria were identified. Primary study findings are reviewed and discussed within the context of neurodevelopment and in relation to findings from adult studies. Directions for further research are also discussed.

Results: All identified studies reported increases in fractional anisotropy (FA) among adolescent/young adult smokers in comparison to non-smokers. Increased FA was most frequently reported in regions of the corpus callosum (genu, body and spenium), internal capsule and superior longitudinal fasciculus.

Conclusions: Findings of increased FA among adolescent/young adult smokers are contrary to those from most adult studies and thus raise the possibility of differential effects of nicotine on white matter across the lifespan. Further research including multiple time points is needed to test this hypothesis. Other areas warranting further research include DTI studies of e-cigarette use and studies incorporating measures of pubertal stage.

Keywords: Addiction; Adolescence; Development; Diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI); Nicotine dependence; White matter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Anisotropy
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Neuroimaging
  • Nicotine / adverse effects
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • White Matter / drug effects*
  • White Matter / growth & development*


  • Nicotine