Effect of a Brief Memory Updating Intervention on Smoking Behavior: A Randomized Clinical Trial

JAMA Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 1;74(3):214-223. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3148.


Importance: Recent research on addiction-related memory processes suggests that protracted extinction training following brief cue-elicited memory retrieval (ie, retrieval-extinction [R-E] training) can attenuate/eradicate the ability of cues to elicit learned behaviors. One study reported that cue-elicited craving among detoxified heroin addicts was substantially attenuated following R-E training and through 6-month follow-up.

Objective: To build on these impressive findings by examining whether R-E training could attenuate smoking-related craving and behavior.

Design, setting, and participants: This prospective, mixed-design, human laboratory randomized clinical trial took place between December 2013 and September 2015. Participants were recruited in Charleston, South Carolina. Study sessions took place at the Medical University of South Carolina. The participants were 168 screened volunteer smokers, of whom 88 were randomized; 72 of these 88 participants (81.8%) attended all the follow-up sessions through 1 month. The primary eligibility criteria were current nicotine dependence (DSM criteria), smoking 10 or more cigarettes per day, and a willingness to attempt smoking cessation.

Interventions: Participants were randomly assigned to receive either smoking-related memory retrieval followed by extinction training (the R-E group) or nonsmoking-related retrieval followed by extinction training (the NR-E group).

Main outcomes and measures: Primary outcomes were cue-elicited craving and physiological responding to familiar and novel cues in the R-E group vs the NR-E group over a 1-month follow-up period. Secondary outcomes were smoking-related behaviors.

Results: A total of 44 participants were randomly assigned to the R-E group (mean age, 48.3 years; 72.7% male); a total of 44 participants were randomly assigned to the NR-E group, with 43 attending at least 1 training session (mean age, 46.7 years; 55.8% male). The mean craving response to both familiar and novel smoking cues was significantly lower for participants in the R-E group than for participants in the NR-E group at 1-month follow-up (for both cue types: t1225 = 2.1, P = .04, d = 0.44, and Δ = 0.47 [95% CI, 0.04-0.90]). The mean numbers of cigarettes smoked per day at 2 weeks and 1-month were significantly lower for the R-E group than for the NR-E group (treatment main effect: F1,68 = 5.4, P = .02, d = 0.50, and Δ = 2.4 [95% CI, 0.4-4.5]). Significant differences in physiological responses, urine cotinine level, number of days abstinent, lapse, and relapse were not observed between groups (all between P = .06 and .75).

Conclusions and relevance: Retrieval-extinction training substantially attenuated craving to both familiar and novel smoking cues and reduced the number of cigarettes smoked per day by participants 1 month after treatment relative to extinction training alone. Between-group differences were not observed for physiological responses, cotinine level, number of days abstinent, relapse, or lapse. In summary, R-E training is a brief behavioral treatment that targets smoking-related memories and has the potential to enhance relapse prevention.

Trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT02154685.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Craving
  • Cues
  • Extinction, Psychological
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Recurrence
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Smoking Cessation / methods*
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology*
  • Smoking Prevention*
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02154685