Pubdate: Fri, 26 Jan 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: Front Page
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Benedict Carey


Scientists studying stroke patients are reporting today that an 
injury to a specific part of the brain, near the ear, can instantly 
and permanently break a smoking habit. People with the injury who 
stopped smoking found that their bodies, as one man put it, "forgot 
the urge to smoke."

The finding, which appears in the journal Science, is based on a 
small study. But experts say it is likely to alter the course of 
addiction research, pointing researchers toward new ideas for treatment.

While no one is suggesting brain injury as a solution for addiction, 
the finding suggests that therapies might focus on the insula, a 
prune-size region under the frontal lobes that is thought to register 
gut feelings and is apparently a critical part of the network that 
sustains addictive behavior.

Previous research on addicts focused on regions of the cortex 
involved in thinking and decision making. But while those regions are 
involved in maintaining habits, the new study suggests that they are 
not as central as the insula is.

The study did not examine dependence on alcohol, cocaine or other 
substances. Yet smoking is at least as hard to quit as any other 
habit, and it probably involves the same brain circuits, experts 
said. Most smokers who manage to quit do so only after repeated 
attempts, and the craving for cigarettes usually lasts for years, if 
not a lifetime.

"This is the first time we've shown anything like this, that damage 
to a specific brain area could remove the problem of addiction 
entirely," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute 
on Drug Abuse, which financed the study, along with the National 
Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "It's absolutely 

Others cautioned that scientists still knew little about the widely 
distributed neural networks involved in sustaining habits.

"One has to be careful not to extrapolate too much based on brain 
injuries to what's going on in all addictive behavior, in healthy 
brains," said Dr. Martin Paulus, a psychiatric researcher at the 
University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego V.A. Medical 
Center. Still, Dr. Paulus said, the study "opens up a whole new way 
to think about addiction."

The researchers, from the University of Iowa and the University of 
Southern California, examined 32 former smokers, all of whom had 
suffered a brain injury. The men and women were lucid enough to 
answer a battery of questions about their habits, and to rate how 
hard it was to quit and the strength of their subsequent urges to smoke.

They all had smoked at least five cigarettes a day for two years or 
more, and 16 of them said they had quit with ease, losing their 
cravings entirely.

The researchers performed M.R.I. scans on all of the patients' brains 
to specify the location and extent of each injury.

They found that the 16 who had quit easily were far more likely to 
have an injury to their insula than to any other area. The 
researchers found no association between a diminished urge to smoke 
and injuries to other regions of the brain, including tissue 
surrounding the insula.

"There's a whole neural circuit critical to maintaining addiction, 
but if you knock out this one area, it appears to wipe out the 
behavior," said Dr. Antoine Bechara, a senior author of the new 
paper, who is a neuroscientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute 
at U.S.C. His co-authors were Dr. Hanna Damasio, also of U.S.C., and 
Nasir Naqvi and David Rudrauf of the University of Iowa.

The patients' desire to eat, by contrast, was intact. This suggests, 
the authors wrote, that the insula is critical for behaviors whose 
bodily effects become pleasurable because they are learned, like 
cigarette smoking.

The insula, for years a wallflower of brain anatomy, has emerged as a 
region of interest based in part on recent work by Dr. Antonio 
Damasio, a neurologist and director of the Brain and Creativity 
Institute. The insula has widely distributed connections, both in the 
thinking cortex above, and down below in subcortical areas, like the 
brain stem, that maintain heart rate, blood pressure and body 
temperature, the body's primal survival systems.

Based on his studies and others', Dr. Damasio argues that the insula, 
in effect, maps these signals from the body's physical plant, and 
integrates them so the conscious brain can interpret them as a 
coherent emotion.

The system works from the bottom up. First, the body senses cues in 
the outside world, and responds. The heart rate might elevate at the 
sight of a stranger's angry face, for example; other muscles might 
relax in response to a pleasant whiff of smoke.

All of this happens instantaneously and unconsciously, Dr. Damasio 
said -- until the insula integrates the information and makes it 
readable to the conscious regions of the brain.

"In a sense it's not surprising that the insula is an important part 
of this circuit maintaining addiction, because we realized some years 
ago that it was going to be a critical platform for emotions," Dr. 
Damasio said in a telephone interview. "It is on this platform that 
we first anticipate pain and pleasure, not just smoking but eating 
chocolate, drinking a glass of wine, all of it."

This explains why cravings are so physical, and so hard to shake, he 
said: they have taken hold in the visceral reaches of the body well 
before they are even conscious.

Other researchers have found that the insula is activated in 
unpleasant circumstances, like a bad smell or the anticipation of a 
painful shock, or even in shoppers when they see a price that seems 
too high. Damage to the insula is associated with slight impairment 
of some social function.

While antismoking treatments based on the new findings are still a 
long way off, the authors suggest that therapies that replicate some 
of the physical sensations of the habit, like inhalers, could be useful.

And at least two previous studies suggest that people can reduce the 
sensation of pain by learning to modulate the activity in an area of 
their brain.

In experiments, healthy volunteers watched real-time M.R.I. images of 
a cortical region linked strongly to pain sensation and learned to 
moderate that neural activity, reducing the pain they felt from a 
heated instrument pressed to their palms. The same kind of technique 
could be tried with addicts watching images of their insulas.

"The question is, Can you learn to deactivate the insula?" Dr. Volkow 
said. "Now, everybody's going to be looking at the insula." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake