University of Roehampton research reveals that both regular and intermittent smoking reduces brain power

  • Monday, December 14, 2020

New brain imaging research has revealed for the first time that people who only smoke cigarettes occasionally for social reasons run a similar risk as regular smokers of reducing their grey matter volume. The study was conducted by academics at the University of Roehampton, the Combined Universities Brain Imaging Centre, London, and King’s College London.

Image - University of Roehampton research reveals that both regular and intermittent smoking reduces brain power

The research, which was first published in the academic journal Addiction Biology, shows that both regular and intermittent smokers show a reduction in both volume and in concentrations of important chemicals such as glutamate, in a crucial area to the front of their brains, the prefrontal cortex. Because this brain region is involved in complex thought processes, emotional regulation and the inhibition of risky behaviours, it is thought that tobacco smokers may be rendered more impulsive and prone to risk taking than non-smokers. It is believed that these changes in brain volume and function are caused predominantly by the nicotine in tobacco, but may also be due to the multitude of harmful chemicals that are also added to cigarettes by manufacturers.

Eighty-five people in the UK, with an average age of 23 years old, took part in the research, including 41 non-smokers, 24 intermittent smokers and 20 daily smokers. This is the first study ever conducted which has examined both the effects of intermittent and regular smoking on the brain. Participants were examined using MRI brain scanners to compare brain capacity differences between the three groups.

The daily smokers smoked on average 11.5 cigarettes every day for at least one year, while the intermittent smokers smoked between one to four cigarettes on at least one day per week. Of the 85 participants, 46 were male and 39 were female.

While the prevalence of daily smoking has decreased from 19.8% of the population in 2011 to roughly 14.1% of the population today* the proportion of cigarette users who smoke occasionally may be increasing as the risks of regular smoking have been widely publicised.

The research was led by Dr Paul Faulkner, Senior Lecturer, and Professor Paul Allen, both from the Department of Psychology at the University of Roehampton. Commenting on the findings, they said: “Cigarette smoking is still the largest contributor to disease and death worldwide. The findings of our research confirms for the first time that both regular and occasional smoking are associated with low volume and low concentrations of important chemicals in the front part of the brain; this may reflect the negative effects of nicotine on the human brain, but may also make them more addicted to smoking, thus creating a vicious circle.

“Intermittent smokers may think that that the risk to their health is lower than regular smokers, but when it comes to the negative effects on the brain, occasional, non-daily smoking has a very similar impact as daily cigarette use.”

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