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Study shows e-cigarettes affect brain similarly to other nicotine sources

Science Highlight

January 31, 2018

Nicotine-containing electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) produce brain changes similar to those caused by other nicotine sources, such as combustible cigarettes or nicotine lozenges, a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates. Researchers found that when nine regular users of e-cigs resumed vaping the devices following 14 hours of abstinence, they exhibited some of the same changes in brain function that have been linked to relief from symptoms of withdrawal in studies using combustible cigarettes.

E-cigarettes affected activity in the prefrontal reward networkE-cigarettes affected activity in the prefrontal reward network. Image courtesy of Dr. Andrea L. Hobkirk.

Specifically, several brain regions showed decreased engagement with neural networks that determine the importance and reward value of experiences. In addition, there was an increase in a functional association between the prefrontal reward network and the frontoparietal executive control network, whereby increased activity in one was associated with decreased activity in the other.

The study participants reported reductions in nicotine craving. In addition, the inability to concentrate due to nicotine withdrawal was partially reversed when they resumed e-cig use. The study’s findings suggest that the nicotine in e-cigs is active in the brain, similar to other sources of nicotine. Further study is needed to understand whether e-cigs can cause addiction in the same way that combustible cigarettes do.

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