Study: Some Strokes Help Smokers to Quit

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New research finds that smokers who have had a stroke that damages part of the brain called the insula can quit smoking with minimal effort. Addiction researchers are taking notice.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Anybody who's tried knows that it's not easy to quit smoking. It may take support groups, nicotine gum, or prescription drugs. So scientists are intrigued by a group of people who quit smoking without really trying.

Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

JON HAMILTON: AT first, they found just one smoker. Doctor Antoine Bechara from the University of Southern California says the man had a remarkable history.

Dr. ANTOINE BECHARA (Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California): He was smoking since the age of 14. And he was smoking about 40 cigarettes a day. And he had a stroke at the age 28.

HAMILTON: That's not the remarkable part. Bechara says that came after the stroke.

Dr. BECHARA: Even though he tried before his stroke to quit on many, many occasions, he was unable. He did not succeed. But after the stroke, basically he had his last cigarette on the evening of the stroke. And it was as if a switch was turned off.

HAMILTON: The man didn't try to quit smoking. Overnight, he just lost his craving for cigarettes. Bechara and his colleagues wondered whether there were more people like this man. So they combed to a registry of stroke patients at the University of Iowa. They've found more than a dozen who'd been smokers and kicked the habit.

Dr. BECHARA: We had to see what is so common about all of them, all those who quit without any effort at all.

HAMILTON: What most of them had in common was damage to an area of the brain called the insula. It's involved in emotions and cravings, among other things. But addiction researchers haven't spent much time on this part of the brain. Now that may change. Bechara's paper on patients with damage to the insula appears in this week's issue of the journal "Science." And it's getting a lot of attention in the world of addiction research.

Dr. STEVEN GRANT (National Institute on Drug Abuse): This opens a new door. That's what makes this paper important.

HAMILTON: Steven Grant is at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the research. He says the study adds to the evidence that there are at least two parts to an addiction. One is the lure of a pleasurable sensation. Grant says a recent survey found that for adolescents that's the definition of addiction.

Dr. GRANT (National Institute on Drug Abuse): But to adults, it was the compulsive aspect. That you just had to do it. And these insula brain lesion patients seem to have lost that aspect.

HAMILTON: Grant says the new study shows the need to consider drugs or other treatments that affect the insula. But those are certainly years or decades away. In the meantime, Grant says the finding should help smokers who haven't had a stroke come to terms with a tough fight ahead.

Dr. GRANT: Without brain damage, and they are lucky not to have brain damage, they should expect there's going to be effort in quitting smoking or other types of addictions. That it's not going to be easy.

HAMILTON: Even with support groups and nicotine gum.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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