ISU Headlines

Idaho State’s Xu collaborates on study suggesting self-expanding activities can help with nicotine craving

Posted April 15, 2014

If you’re trying to quit smoking one method to incorporate is to do new, exciting “self-expanding” activities that can help with nicotine craving.

That’s the take-home message from a new study published in the peer-reviewed, online journal PLOS ONE in April. The study was completed by researchers from Idaho State University, Stony Brook University, the American Cancer Society, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Georgia and Brown University.

Xiaomeng "Mona" XuResearchers based their study’s conclusions on a neuroimaging study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning that measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. The fMRI scanning was completed at Stony Brook University in New York.

“The study showed that engaging in exciting, novel activities helps to reduce cigarette cue-reactivity in the brain,” said Xiaomeng “Mona” Xu, ISU assistant professor of psychology. “This study, along with some others that my colleagues and I have done, suggest that engaging in these sorts of activities may be able to help with nicotine craving and, ultimately, smoking cessation.”

She said that engaging in new and exciting activities – such as a hobby, reading or puzzle-solving – stimulates the same pathways in the brain that are activated by the effects of nicotine. This suggests that self-expanding activities can potentially substitute for the reward the brain receives from nicotine.

The researchers tested this theory by using fMRI scanning to look at nicotine-deprived smokers who played a series of two-player cooperative games with partners. The games were randomized between expanding versus non-expanding activities. The study’s expanding games offered new choices and more targets for study participants and were significantly more exciting. The self-expansion activities yielded significantly greater activation in a reward region of the brain than the non-expanding conditions.

“Our results supported the idea that a self-expanding activities promoting reward activation in the brain that reduces the cues to smoke cigarettes among nicotine-deprived smokers,” Xu said.

She said that future research could focus on the parameters of the self-expanding activities that produce this effect, as well as test the use of self-expansion activities in clinical interventions for smoking cessation.

“In addition to the importance of this work for smoking cessation, this was also the first brain-imaging study to demonstrate the rewarding effects of doing specifically self-expanding activities with one’s romantic partner, an effect shown in many behavioral studies to be very beneficial to relationships, but now supported by brain research,” said Arthur Aron, a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, who participated in the study.

The title of the paper is “An fMRI study of nicotine-deprived smokers’ reactivity to smoking cues during novel/exciting activity” and is available open-access via the journal PLOS ONE’s website at