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Imaging study affords renewed thrust on smoking cessation treatments

(2 and one-half to three cigarettes). Craving was measured with the Urge to Smoke scale, which assesses responses to 10 craving-related questions. The scientists also conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help localize regions on the PET scans.

"We saw on our PET scans that the radiotracer 'disappeared' over time as the nicotine receptors became occupied by nicotine from cigarettes," says Dr. Brody.

The scientists found that the highest levels of nicotine binding occurred in the thalamus (a portion of the brain that acts as a conduit for all sensory information that reaches the brain's cerebral cortex, and which contains the highest concentration of these nicotine receptors), the brainstem (which controls various automatic functions, such as respiration, heart rate, and arousal), and the cerebellum (the portion of the brain responsible for the coordination of movement and balance). Results of another recently published NIDA-supported study suggest that a portion of the cerebellum called the vermis may be a key factor in modulating the brain's dopamine and reward systems, and may be more involved in drug abuse and addiction than previously thought.

"Although craving was only reduced with near total occupancy of these receptors, there remains the question of whether other, less common types of nicotine receptors are equally important in tobacco dependence," says Dr. Brody. "This is an important area of focus for future research."

"The central findings of the study suggest that typical daily smokers need to have these nicotine receptors almost completely saturated throughout the day, which drives the almost uncontrollable urge to keep smoking," says Dr. Volkow. "A more complete understanding of how nicotine affects the brain can help us develop better therapies for people looking to quit. In addition, since even low levels of nicotine exposure result in substantial occupancy of these receptors, additional research needs t
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