How Smoking is Addictive

The Monkey on Your Back Is Smoking a Cigarette

By Alice Wessendorf
Created 05/16/2011 – 8:00am
The Monkey on Your Back Is Smoking a Cigarette

“I want to quit smoking, but I just can’t seem to do it.”

How often have you heard a similar lament from a smoker? (Maybe it was even from yourself.) Well, it turns out that there’s a really good reason for that feeling of hopeless addiction.

A study conducted at the University of Chicago Medical Center—and published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience—uncovered evidence that taking your very first puff of a nicotine-laced cigarette…as far as your brain is concerned at least…is pretty much the same as taking a hit of cocaine.

Researchers found that the effects that nicotine has on your brain eerily mirror those of cocaine. Literally within minutes of your first exposure to either of the drugs it seizes control of your brain’s natural memory and learning pathways causing long-lasting changes in your brain.

When nicotine hits your brain, it tickles a certain region of it—the ventral tegmental area (VTA)—that’s responsible for the neurons that release the neurotransmitter dopamine (often called the “feel good hormone”). More specifically, the nicotine targets the acetylcholine that’s located on the dopamine neurons, cozying up to the neurotransmitter and essentially…well…bonding.

You see, your brain handles memory and learning by observing when two neurons are repeatedly activated at the same time. The more often they are switched on together, the stronger the bond between them grows and the more they are able to excite each other.

This natural process…known by the somewhat-intimidating-sounding term synaptic plasticity…is apparently being hijacked by nicotine for its own addiction-producing purposes.

The University of Chicago researchers exposed slices of lab-rat brains to a nicotine bath for 15 minutes (an exposure equal to about the amount you get from smoking a single cigarette). To their surprise, they found that besides the expected action in the VTA area of the brain involving acetylcholine the nicotine also targeted the D5-dopamine receptor that’s been linked to the actions of cocaine.

So, in other words, both nicotine and cocaine work their addictive magic by essentially commandeering your brain’s feel-good dopamine reward system.

And so what’s the bottom line? Quitting smoking is quite similar to quitting cocaine. (Giving you a really great reason to never pick up the habit, not to mention an excellent reason to have major sympathy for those who are trying to quit it.)

For some helpful tips from contributor Jon Barron on supporting your respiratory system while you quit, click here [1] to see my previous article.

Remember that although opportunity may knock only once temptation tends to lean on the doorbell like a cheeky monkey. And that monkey, of course, may be offering you cigarettes so you simply shouldn’t answer it.


“Nicotine Potentiation of Excitatory Inputs to Ventral Tegmental Dopamine Neurons,” J Neurosci., 2011 May 4

“Voluntary nicotine consumption triggers in vivo potentiation of cortical excitatory drives to midbrain dopaminergic neurons,” J Neurosci., 2009 Aug 19;29(33):10410-5.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: