Nicotine is no more addictive than a placebo
Smokers! It’s not the nicotine that gives you the ‘rush’ but the dopamine the brain produces when nicotine enters the body that’s the real culprit! It’s the dopamine rush that’s the real cause of your addiction!
Ingesting cigarette smoke directly into the lungs is a very efficient way of directing nicotine straight into the bloodstream. But there’s something else to take into consideration here and that is the smoker’s belief that the cigarette will deliver the ‘high.’ This notion confuses the brain – it’s the placebo effect in action.
Researchers led by Dr Xiaosi Gu and Dr Read Montague at the Centre for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas have made a remarkable, if unsurprising, discovery.
The study involved 24 chronic nicotine-addicted smokers, each of whom underwent fMRI scans (designed to capture neural activity in the insula cortex) before and after each session. The insula cortex plays a key role in bodily perception and self-awareness and is also associated with drug related craving and addiction.
In the first experiment, the subjects were told that the cigarette contained nicotine, but was actually nicotine-free.
In the second, the subjects were told the cigarette was nicotine-free, but was actually a normal nicotine cigarette.
In the third experiment, the subjects were again told the cigarette contained nicotine, which it did.
In the fourth experiment, the subjects were given nicotine-free cigarettes and were told they were nicotine-free.
Before each session, and again after smoking the cigarette, the participants rated their levels of craving.
As expected, the fMRI scans showed significant neural activity correlated to craving when participants smoked a nicotine-free cigarette and were told it was nicotine free. Conversely, when they were given a nicotine-free cigarette but believed was a normal cigarette, the neural activity related to craving was almost completely absent.
These latest results support previous findings that belief can alter a drug’s effects on craving.
Expectation also plays a part. Studies involving fake drugs given to student volunteers have proved this to be correct. The belief that they have taken the real thing alters their perception and their behaviour. When questioned about the ‘drug’ experience, most reported feelings of being disorientated and even ‘spaced out.’
All this research has important ramifications for drug addiction. The research suggests that for drugs to have an effect on a person, they need to believe the drug is present. With that in mind, I’d like to try this on heroin addicts, just to see… although I suspect the more seriously addicted would be more difficult to fool, given their learned scepticism and natural distrust of authority.
The researchers hope that their results will provide insights into possible avenues for new methods of addiction treatment.