Some past evidence has shown abnormal dopamine transmission in nicotine-dependent smokers. Now, quitting smoking has been shown to reverse the issue. “Okay, so what in the world is dopamine?” you may ask. Well, dopamine is a chemical that’s involved in a lot of different brain functions. It’s also one of the neurochemicals that can affect our motivations, rewards, and addictions. Almost all of your common street drugs use dopamine to increase the pleasure in certain areas of your brain. Oh yeah, and so do cigarettes.
When you see someone taking a long drag from their little white death cylinder, their body is quickly responding to action. Their neurons start to fire differently, sending all sorts of feel-good chemicals out into their synaptic clefts, and ultimately alter their consciousness. Sure it’s no “I’m chasing a dragon” type of high, but the change is there. As they stand there staring at the alleyway in front of them, ambivalent to you creeping around the corner, just realize their dopamine receptors in their brain are hard at work.
Now, maybe it’s because they’re only feeling a quick head change off their old pack of Marlboros that they don’t think about all these physiological changes happening below the surface. Then again, who thinks about what’s going on in their body if there’s no impending doom and they’re feeling good? When you need to take a #2 with haste, you’re probably thinking a lot about your body, but when you’re reading this article, you just probably aren’t, unless you need to also take a #2. Am I wrong?
Science to The Rescue
Whatever situation you currently find yourself in, maybe both, rest easy knowing science is looking out for you. There are smart people out there that think about your body even if you don’t. People like our friend Dr. Lena Rademacher at the University of Lübeck in Germany come to our aid in times like this. Her newest study scanned the brains of 15 non-smokers and 30 dependent smokers to see the variance in their dopamine functions. A whopping 15 of the 30 nicotine-dependent people were able to completely abstain from smoking for 3 months and were then re-scanned to see how things in their noggins had changed.
By doing this, Rademacher was able to help demystify some popular assumptions. Of course this study can be looked at as a negative if you’re a smoker, but think about it a little. Maybe you’re just now realizing the chemicals you inhale also spark some malevolent chemical reactions in your brain and body? The good news is if you can put those pesky cancer sticks down, your body can recover (at least in dopamine function) in as little as 3 months!
A recent study published in Biological Psychiatry looked at whether the dopaminergic abnormalities found in nicotine-dependent people would persist if they quit smoking. To do this, they took 15 non-smokers and 30 dependent smokers and ran them through our old pal the Positron Emission Tomography exam, or a PET exam if you’re cool.
The smokers then started a cessation treatment, and if they were still clean after 3 months, were re-examined. Surprisingly enough, 15 people actually sustained the quitting protocol and refrained from picking their sweet smokecandies back up. Other than giving us some good data, these 15 people were able to quit their bad habit for at least 3 months and get past the hardest stages of overcoming smoking addiction. Thanks science!
The smokers’ dopamine synthesis capacity started 15-20% lower than the non-smokers’. The researchers actually expected this trend to persist after cessation, and thought it may be a reason some people seemed more susceptible to nicotine addiction. Surprisingly though, after 3 months of quitting smoking, there was a significant increase back to a normal level of dopamine function.
So what does that mean for us? Well, it means that we don’t pick up the habit of smoking because we are more vulnerable to begin with. The act of smoking is actually what causes the dopamine abnormality. This is no natural deficiency. If you’re a smoker and you feel a little unstable, it may just be that your biology is a little off. The great news is that although quitting may seem impossible, if you do, you can return your system back to normal within 3 months!