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Researchers Study Link Between Stroke Brain Damage, Desire to Smoke

Researchers have discovered that some stroke patients who suffered damage to a particular brain region were able to quit smoking instantly and not miss the habit. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the finding has implications for the treatment of smoking and other addictions.

In an article published in Science, researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of Iowa describe the case of a man they named Nathan, 28.

Nathan suffered a stroke that damaged a part of his brain called the insula. Before his stroke, the researchers say Nathan smoked 40 unfiltered cigarettes per day. He had his last cigarette the night before his hospitalization. After his stroke, study author Antoine Bechara says Nathan showed no interest or desire to smoke.

"When asked about his reason for quitting smoking, he stated, 'I forgot that I was I was a smoker.' So we asked him to elaborate. And he said he did not forget the fact that he was a smoker, but rather that his body forgot the urge to smoke," noted Mr. Bechara.

Intrigued, researchers wanted to try to find out whether Nathan's spontaneous cessation of smoking was due to his brain injury.

The researchers studied 69 patients with brain damage who had been smokers before they were injured. Of these, 32 were quitters. Of the 32, half struggled to kick the habit, and the remaining 16 patients, according to Bechara, quit spontaneously.

"Basically we came to the conclusion that the odds of quitting with a disruption of smoking addiction were more than 130 times greater after a lesion that affected the left or right insula," he added.

Bechara discussed his work with the editors of Science.

Bechara says researchers are trying to figure out why four stroke patients who did not sustain damage to the insula quit spontaneously.

Experts says the insula is thought to be involved in transmitting subjective feelings to the rest of the body, such as hunger, cravings and desires for drugs based on cues, such as seeing drug paraphernalia.

Bechara says researchers now have a new target in the brain to deal with a host of addictions, from drugs to food.

"This area has been overlooked in drug addiction research," he noted. "It's quite possible now to open new directions for pharmacological studies aimed at specific reception within the insula that can be targeted to stop smoking,"

But Bechara says addiction researchers will want to be careful not to harm portions of the insula that are involved in normal, everyday functions such as eating.