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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Teens Exhibit Heightened Response to Cigarette Use

teens exhibit heightened response to cigarette useRecent magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) of teen brains indicate that they may be more likely to develop cigarette addiction. During imaging, researchers found elevated levels of dopamine in the brain as teens watched videos of adolescents smoking cigarettes. Dopamine is a brain chemical that modulates pleasure and emotion, and according to study co-author Adriana Galvan of the University of California Los Angeles, “The dopamine system undergoes significant maturation during the teenage years, rendering the teen brain more reactive to rewards and perhaps more vulnerable to addictive substances.”

During this small study, Galvan and co-author Kathy Do (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) analyzed 39 teen and 39 adult MRIs while participants viewed video clips of actors who were smoking. After completing the MRIs, researchers asked participants whether they wanted to smoke while watching the videos. Teen smokers seemed to have a stronger connection between dopamine production, reward activation, and their reported desire to light up.

The study was limited by the fact that participants were not asked to abstain from smoking for a period before viewing the videos, which may have independently influenced their craving levels. This limitation was reported in the Journal findings. Adam Leventhal, director of the Health, Emotion and Addiction Laboratory at the University of Southern California, commented on the study and reported that findings may have been impacted by the fact that older adults found it difficult to personally identify with video clips of younger smokers.

“For the adults in the study, the video of young people smoking might not have been realistic enough to produce the natural response that they might have had if encountering smoking in the real world,” said Leventhal in an email. He also added that the study might have shown heightened cravings in teens because the part of the brain that reacts to pleasure cues develops faster than the part of the brain regulating impulse control.

If teen brains are actually more sensitive to nicotine than adults, it may make sense to set the legal cigarette purchase age to 21 to reduce the risk of more vulnerable adolescents falling prey to cravings, said Dr. Nancy Rigotti, Harvard University researcher and director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The study does not claim to prove that teens are more likely to become addicted to cigarettes, but according to an email from Rigotti, it provides “very nice supporting data.” (Rigotti was not involved in the study.)

SOURCES: Journal of Adolescent Health, online December 8, 2015;

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