More and more people start smoking at a very young age. And while it is illegal to sell cigarettes to the youth, it is not illegal for them to smoke. What’s more, current figures show that young people smoke more than any other age group in America.
As we all know, the harmful effects of cigarette smoke is greater among young smokers than adults. It’s not just because they get to smoke for a longer period, but more importantly because the chemicals in tobacco may cause physical changes in their brains.
That’s according to a new study published this week in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
“Although we are not certain whether the findings represent the effects of smoking or a genetic risk factor for nicotine dependence, the results may reflect the initial effects of cigarette smoking on the brain,” said senior author Edythe London, a professor of psychiatry and of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and David Geffen School of Medicine. “This work may also contribute to the understanding of why smoking during this developmental stage has such a profound impact on lifelong smoking behavior.” .
The researchers compared the insula – a part of the brain’s cerebral cortex that is involved in monitoring internal states and making decisions – between younger smokers and non-smokers. They focused on the insula because it is known to play a central role in the maintenance of tobacco dependence, having the highest density of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors within the human cerebral cortex.
The researchers recorded the smoking histories of 42 people ages 16 to 22, and assessed their cigarette craving and dependence, and examined the differences in their insula using high-resolution structural magnetic resonance imaging. Of the participants, 24 were non-smokers and 18 were smokers. Those who smoked began around the age of 15 and smoked fewer than seven cigarettes a day at the time of the study.
Their groundbreaking findings suggest that the amount of “pack-years” — the time of cigarette exposure — was negatively related to the thickness in the right side of the insula. That is, the more someone smoked, the thinner that part of the insula. The relationship also held true for the participants’ level of dependence on cigarettes and the urge to smoke.
Their findings also suggest that participants with greater smoking exposure had more severe nicotine dependence, more cigarette craving and less insular thickness than those with less exposure. “While this was a small study and needs to be replicated, our findings show an apparent effect of smoking on brain structure in young people, even with a relatively short smoking history. And that is a concern. It suggests that smoking during this critical time period produces neurobiological changes that may cause a dependence on tobacco in adulthood.” said London.