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Short Fuse Might Light Way To Cigarette Addiction

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  • Short Fuse Might Light Way To Cigarette Addiction

    February 17, 2004

    WASHINGTON -- If you're easy to anger, you might have a brain especially susceptible to nicotine.

    Scientists using powerful scanners have documented nicotine triggering bursts of activity in certain brain areas -- but only in people prone to anger and aggression, not more cheerful, relaxed types.

    Researchers made the discovery when studying people wearing nicotine patches. Intriguingly, the nicotine jazzed up the brains of not just smokers who are aggressive, but of nonsmokers, too -- and at very low doses.

    It's the first biological evidence that people with certain personality traits are more likely to get hooked on smoking if they experiment with cigarettes.

    And it may help explain why it's so much easier for some people to kick the addiction than others, says psychiatrist Steven Potkin of the University of California, Irvine, who led the study.

    It's almost, he says, as if some people are born to smoke.

    Other scientists won't make that leap, noting that it's not clear how much of a person's personality is genetic and how much stems from childhood environments.

    Smoking habits, too, can depend greatly on whether people grew up surrounded by smokers and the social and cultural conditions under which they try to quit.

    Still, ''we're looking for the variety of things that could make people likely to smoke, and this could be one of them,'' says William Corrigall of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

    It also has important implications for teenagers. Adolescents are prone to periods of aggression before parts of the brain that control impulse and behavior finish forming -- and smokers almost universally pick up the habit as teens.

    If doctors could predict who's most at risk of getting hooked after their first few cigarettes, perhaps they could better target those people with smoking prevention programs.

    Previous surveys had suggested that Type A personalities are more likely to be big smokers, especially when nervous or irritated. Also, some scientists have put smokers into brain scanners while infusing them with nicotine, to see what brain areas the drug targets.

    But Potkin's study took the crucial step of adding nonsmokers to the mix. And he asked 86 people to do various tests -- such as computer games that showed who were the sore losers -- while a PET scanner monitored their brain activity before and after receiving low- or high-dose nicotine patches or a sham patch.

    ''No one has looked at nicotine in this way,'' says Kenneth Perkins, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh who also is studying predictive traits of smoking.

    January 14, 2004
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