Smoking cessation medications alleviate symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, but not long-term brain changes

Cigarette ends
Image by © M Lee

Researchers now report that nicotine replacement therapy and the smoking cessation medication varenicline alleviate ex-smokers’ deficits in decision-making, but do not restore reward sensitivity. The new study pinpoints the types of decision errors newly abstinent smokers make, and how their brain activity during decision-making differs from that of non-smokers.

The researchers note that impulsivity is a feature of acute withdrawal from nicotine. Depressed reward sensitivity, in contrast, reflects the severity of a smoker’s dependence on the drug. Over time, the brain naturally recoups reward sensitivity. Meanwhile, however, the abstinent smoker may be hampered in attempts to find pleasure in healthy alternative activities to smoking.