Scientists at the Imperial College London may have found a new and more effective way to study the effects of smoking on the brain. By taking functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of people’s brains while they are using e-cigarettes, the scientists are able to mimic the behaviors of smoking traditional cigarettes. This is giving the researchers an unprecedented look into how the addiction of smoking truly works.
Everyone knows that nicotine is a highly addictive substance, one that adds to the crippling addiction of smoking cigarettes. E-cigarettes are already proving themselves to be an effective method of quitting smoking through studies and testimonials of users who were successful. One must ask, however, if it is just nicotine that drives the addiction of smoking, why are e-cigarettes more successful in smoking cessation than other nicotine replacement therapies like gums and patches? Clearly, as many smokers can already tell you, there is another addiction at work when it comes to the habit of smoking cigarettes.
Matt Wall, an imaging scientist at Imperial College London, led the pilot study using e-cigarettes, he said, not to judge e-cigarettes one way or another, but simply to discover a deeper understanding of the science of smoking addiction. “There’s something unique about the drug [nicotine] and the delivery system — the smoking — combined which makes it really, really addictive,” Wall said.
Scientists were able to study the brain by analyzing what parts of the brain respond to the actions of smoking, or in actuality, vaping. They are looking to study the brain effect of what Wall called the “behavioral and sensory repertoire of smoking.” Until the e-cigarette came around it was impossible to monitor the effects of smoking traditional cigarettes as the smoke was too dangerous to have in the confined space of an MRI machine. Since e-cigarettes produce water vapor and are not combustible, the researchers were able to record this brain activity right as the user was vaping, giving them a new view into the addiction of smoking.
Wall explained why using e-cigarettes are effective in this study. “E-cigarettes … provide a very good simulation of traditional smoking [and] we have shown that using e-cigarettes with fMRI is an excellent paradigm for direct evaluation of the effects of smoking on human neurophysiology,” he said. While the study at this time is of too small a sample set to make any true determinations; the information they gathered from the fMRIs showed activity in areas of the brain that are linked to the reward and addiction sectors of the brain, as well as in the perception of taste and smell.
While the use of e-cigarettes continues to grow and both sides continue to debate on the positives and negatives of vaping, traditional tobacco smoking kills around 6 million people each year. The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2030 that number could be around 8 million. E-cigarettes stand to help reduce this number drastically. Researchers at the University College London estimate that for every million smokers who switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes, more than 6,000 premature deaths would be prevented each year. In addition e-cigarette, vapors are far healthier than tobacco smoke, and they do not produce the second-hand smoke that is a threat to our society’s public health as well.
Meanwhile, opponents of e-cigarette devices are negating these benefits and continuing to vilify vaping. Many critics also accuse e-cigarettes of making smoking more attractive to teens and adolescents, claiming that vaporizers are creating a new generation of “smokers.” This way of thinking is dangerous as it stunts the ability of e-cigarettes to grow and be used as cessation tools.
Studies like this one in London are so necessary because they help show why these devices are so important to promote and protect. E-cigarettes are the only smoking cessation device that addresses both the nicotine and the habitual addiction presenting them in a way that truly helps people become successful in kicking the habit. Now that we are finally beginning to have proof that the addiction to cigarettes goes beyond just a nicotine addiction, we can truly help people, and ourselves, improve our lives and the health of those in the world around us.