Newswise — Stony Brook, NY, April 21, 2014 – If you are trying to quit smoking one method to incorporate is to do new, exciting “self-expanding” activities that can help with nicotine craving. This is the take-home message from a new study published online in PLOS ONE by a team of researchers including Arthur Aron, PhD, a Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University.

Dr. Aron and colleagues 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, completed at Stony Brook University, looked at the brains of nicotine-deprived smokers who engaged in a series of two-player cooperative games with their relationship partners during the actual time of the scanning.

The team of researchers, from Stony Brook University, Idaho State University, the American Cancer Society, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Georgia and Brown University, report what they discovered in the paper, “An fMRI study of nicotine-deprived smokers’ reactivity to smoking cues during novel/exciting activity.”

“Our study reveals for the first time using brain imaging that engaging in exciting or what we call ‘self-expanding’ activities, such as puzzle-solving, games, or hobbies with one’s partner, appears to reduce craving for nicotine,” said Dr. Aron. “The self-expansion activities yielded significantly greater activation in a major reward region of the brain, which is associated with addictive behaviors, than did non-expanding conditions. This suggests such activities may be a major new route to help people reduce the desire to smoke.”

Dr. Aron and lead author Xiaomeng Xu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Idaho State University, explained that because engaging in self-expanding activities clearly stimulates the same pathways in the brain that are activated by nicotine – as revealed by the fMRI study – self-expanding activities such as games could potentially substitute for the reward the brain receives from nicotine.

In the study, the team tested their theory with the use of fMRI during the cooperative game playing. The games were randomized between expanding and non-expanding activities. The study’s expanding games offered new choices and more targets for study participants and were significantly more exciting.

The researchers believe that future research could focus on specific aspects 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.

Dr. Aron added, “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.”


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