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Smoking changes brain chemistry

Chronic smoking affects nerve cells and alters the chemical makeup of the brain, according to research presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"This is the first imaging study to focus on the relationship between brain metabolites and nicotine dependence," said Okan Gür, M.D., from the Department of Radiology at the University of Bonn in Germany.

Dr. Gür and colleagues used proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to study 21 men and 22 women, age 21 to 59, in a smoking cessation program two weeks after quitting and again six months later. Patients were encouraged to use nicotine patches during the initial six weeks of smoking cessation; however, only 36 of the patients complied.

Proton MRS is able to measure brain metabolism at the cellular level and can provide detailed chemical data about the brain's metabolites, which are involved in many physical and chemical processes within the body.

The researchers compared the data collected from the smokers to proton MRS data collected from 35 age- and gender-matched healthy controls.

The results showed that the nicotine-dependent patients had significantly decreased concentrations of the amino acid N-acetylaspartate (NAA) in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain that processes pleasure and pain. The decreased NAA levels were evident regardless of whether or not the patient used a nicotine patch and correlated directly with the patient's smoking history: the greater the number of pack years (one pack per day for one year equals one pack year), the lower the NAA level.

"The ACC is involved in mediating conditioned reinforcement, craving and relapsing behavior in addiction," said study co-author Christian G. Schütz, M.D., M.P.H., from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Bonn. "Lower NAA levels have been implicated as indicators of neuronal or axonal dysfunction."

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Source:Radiological Society of North America


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