In a new research that offers hope for treating those with nicotine addiction, scientists have come out with some interesting finds. Damage to a tiny area of the brain called the insula can result in a person not wanting to smoke, ever.
The insula lies in the center of the brain and is thought to translate information from other parts of the body into feelings such as hunger, pain or cravings for a drug.
The study published in the journal Science, was inspired when one of the scientists involved in the work, noted the case of a person who lost the urge to light up, after a stroke damaged the insula of his brain.
The scientists then turned to records of patients held by the University of Iowa and identified 69 who had smoked at least five cigarettes a day for at least two years before they suffered brain damage.
They found that 19 of these patients had damage to the insula and 13 of them had given up smoking, 12 of them quickly and easily. The other six continued to smoke — possibly reflecting damage to different parts of the insula.
Of the 50 patients who had strokes that did not disrupt the insula, 19 also gave up smoking, but only four did so instantly and without any cravings.
The difference in the two groups' experience of quitting suggests that the general stroke patients gave up in standard fashion because of the health risks. The insula-damaged patients, however, gave up because it no longer occurred to them to smoke.
"There is a lot of potential for pharmacological developments," says Dr Bechara, from of the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of Iowa, the lead author of the study.
"One of the most difficult problems in any form of addiction is the difficulty in stopping the urge to smoke, to take a drug, or to eat for that matter. Now we have identified a brain target for further research into dealing with that urge."
The findings suggest the possibility of helping smokers to give up by manipulating the insula to kill their addiction, without causing the extensive brain damage of a stroke.
Scientists opine that drugs could be developed to alter brain activity, or it could be disrupted using magnetic fields.
Another technique called deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted in the brain to switch off particular areas, has already been used successfully to treat Parkinson's disease and depression.
Such treatments, however, will require much more research into exactly how the insula affects smoking and other addictions before patient trials could begin; it will be important not to disrupt other activities in which the region plays a critical role.
Bechara emphasizes," The insula also carries out lots of normal everyday functions, so we would want to make sure we only interfere with functions that disrupt bad habits like smoking but not something vital like eating."