Research Into The Brain

Blog Post created by dr_hurt on May 21, 2010

Recently a body of scientific literature has emerged describing what scientists call “cue reactivity.”  Using a brain imaging technique called functional MRI, specific areas of the brain have been identified that react to smoking-related cues from the environment.  These cues are the things that you run into every day that make you think of lighting up, because they actually “trip a switch” in your brain.

These cues can be very personal.  What are they for you?  Some common ones are: seeing a cigarette or someone smoking, seeing an ashtray, hearing the flick of a lighter, smelling smoke, drinking coffee, talking on the phone, seeing tobacco advertising, having an alcoholic drink, or just being in a room or a place where you normally smoke.  Scientists now understand how significant it is to be exposed to these cues when a person is trying to stop smoking.  It really can make it harder!

When you are exposed to smoking-related cues, these specific areas of your brain go into overdrive and can overwhelm your intentions not to smoke. This research translates into what might be some good advice that can make it a little easier to quit:

  • Change your routines.

    Trying to do everything just the same as you always do can make it really hard to quit.  Take a look at your morning routine, your drive to work, or your breaks during the day.  Is there a way you might switch things up?

  • Change your environment.

    Try drinking your coffee in a different room, avoid your favorite place to smoke, get rid of lighters and ashtrays.  Try to get rid of the things that your brain sees as cues to smoke.


Think about it as you go throughout your day and try to search out those things that “trip your switch.”  By simply changing a few things around, you might be able to avoid at least some of them and make stopping smoking just a little easier. Click here to read about triggers and exercises to help you seperate from those triggers.

Dr. Richard D. Hurt is an internationally recognized expert on tobacco dependence. A native of Murray, Kentucky, he joined Mayo Clinic in 1976 and is now a Professor of Medicine at its College of Medicine. In 1988, he founded the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center and since then its staff has treated more than 50,000 patients for tobacco dependence. Send your questions directly to Dr. Hurt at AskTheExpert@becomeanex.org