From Discover Magazine.
A study recently published in Neuropsychopharmacology shows that something called the “insula,” which is part of the cerebral cortex, is thinner in the brains of teens who smoke versus teens who don’t smoke.
The insula helps govern emotions and consciousness and it also contains a lot of nicotine receptors so is part of the brain where the craving for nicotine comes from.
According to the Discover article:
“It looks like, even in these very young kids, there is a link between the structure of the insula and the extent to which they smoke and become dependent,” London said in a Neuropsychopharmacology podcast. “It was shocking. We are beginning to get a story of the functional neuroanatomy of smoking.”
Although the study illustrated a difference in brain structure of young smokers and nonsmokers, it did not establish whether smoking caused the variations. It could be that people with differently structured insulas are more likely to take up smoking for an unknown reason. However, the results pave the way for future studies to determine the actual cause and effect.
“Ideally one would start the study in 12-year-olds who haven’t begun to smoke; follow them out after they begin to smoke; and see if in fact the smaller insula thickness was a predictor of a predilection to become a smoker,” London explained in the podcast.
On the other hand, if London’s team finds proof that smoking causes thinning of the right insula, it would provide further evidence of the detrimental health effects of picking up the habit at a young age
And this is why this is important. It could be that kids prone to addictive behaviour already have this thinner insula, or that smoking creates more addictive behaviours later (I’ve long said that pot is not really a gateway drug, but cigarettes are. Almost all drug addicts started using cigarettes as their first drug).
According to the original article:
Cigarette dependence and the urge to smoke were negatively related to cortical thickness in the right ventral anterior insula. Although the results do not demonstrate causation, they do suggest that there are effects of cigarette exposure on brain structure in young smokers, with a relatively short smoking history. It is possible that changes in the brain due to prolonged exposure or to the progression of dependence lead to more extensive structural changes, manifested in the reported group differences between adult smokers and nonsmokers. Structural integrity of the insula may have implications for predicting long-term cigarette smoking and problems with other substance abuse in this population.