Quitting smoking can be easier for people whose brains are hard-wired to quit the habit, a new study concludes. This finding could help design a new method of assisting those trying to quit tobacco.

Duke University School of Medicine researchers examined 85 tobacco users over the course of 10 weeks, utilizing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to record brain behavior. Investigators wanted to examine how connections between neurons in brains differ between those smokers who successfully quit the habit, compared to those who relapse.

Subjects each tried to quit the habit during the course of the 10-week investigation. A total of 44 volunteers in the study remained tobacco free at the end of the study, while 41 continued the habit.

Two areas of the brain - the insula, which controls cravings and urges, and the somatosensory cortex, which directs motor control and feelings of touch, had greater coordinated activity between them in those who found it easier to quit tobacco, researchers discovered. That means people who have less trouble quitting smoking could be "hard wired" to quit the habit.

The insula has been implicated before in tobacco addiction. Previous studies have shown this structure in the brain is active in subjects craving the drug, and damage to the area often results in the loss of any craving to smoke. This leads researchers to believe targeting the connections between the two structures could prove an effective treatment for tobacco addiction. The greatest question is how to put that idea into practice.

"There's a general agreement in the field that the insula is a key structure with respect to smoking and that we need to develop cessation interventions that specifically modulate insula function. But in what ways do we modulate it, and in whom? Our data provides some evidence on both of those fronts, and suggests that targeting connectivity between insula and somatosensory cortex could be a good strategy," Joseph McClernon of Duke University said.

Two techniques normally used to treat depression, transcranial magnetic stimulation, which stimulates brain activity using magnets, and neurofeedback, a training method in which patients watch their brain activity live, could potentially be used to alter activity levels. If this is successful, the techniques could be used to provide smokers with the same condition as that seen in those used by those people who find it easy to quit tobacco.

Investigators are still uncertain exactly why greater activity levels in between the two areas in the brain correlates with greater ease in kicking the tobacco habit.

Analysis of how brain structure can contribute to efforts to quit smoking was detailed in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

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