January 24, 2011

Smokers: Monkey See, Monkey Do?

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Seeing someone else light up may provoke a physical response in smokers. A new study reveals that watching actors smoke in movies activates areas of a smoker's brain that are known to interpret and plan hand movements. Researchers say these movements mimic the motions of lighting a cigarette.

Smokers typically repeat the same hand motions, sometimes dozens of times a day. Investigators from Dartmouth College wanted to determine whether parts of the brain that control those motions could be triggered by watching someone else smoke.

The study involved 17 smokers and 17 nonsmokers who watched 30 minutes of the movie "Matchstick Men" while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were unaware that the study was about smoking.

During the smoking scenes, the smokers exhibited more brain activity in a part of the parietal lobe called the intraparietal sulcus as well as other areas involved in perception and coordination. In the smoker's brains, the brain activity corresponded to the hand they used to smoke.

"Our findings support prior studies that show smokers who exit a movie that had images of smoking are more likely to crave a cigarette, compared with ones who watched a movie without them," Dylan Wagner, a graduate student of Dartmouth College, was quoted as saying. "More work is needed to show whether brain activity in response to movie smoking predicts relapse for a smoker trying to quit."

SOURCE: The Journal of Neuroscience, Jan. 2011