Do brain responses to emotional images and cigarette cues differ? An fMRI study in smokers

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Chronic smoking is thought to cause changes in brain reward systems that result in overvaluation of cigarette-related stimuli and undervaluation of natural rewards. We tested the hypotheses that, in smokers, brain circuits involved in emotional processing: (i) would be more active during exposure to cigarette-related than neutral pictures; and (ii) would be less active to pleasant compared with cigarette-related pictures, suggesting a devaluation of intrinsically pleasant stimuli. We obtained whole-brain blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging data from 35 smokers during the presentation of pleasant (erotica and romance), unpleasant (mutilations and sad), neutral, and cigarette-related pictures. Whole-brain analyses showed significantly larger BOLD responses during presentation of cigarette-related pictures relative to neutral ones within the secondary visual areas, the cingulate gyrus, the frontal gyrus, the dorsal striatum, and the left insula. BOLD responses to erotic pictures exceeded responses to cigarette-related pictures in all clusters except the insula. Within the left insula we observed larger BOLD responses to cigarette-related pictures than to all other picture categories. By including intrinsically pleasant and unpleasant pictures in addition to neutral ones, we were able to conclude that the presentation of cigarette-related pictures activates brain areas supporting emotional processes, but we did not find evidence of overall reduced activation of the brain reward systems in the presence of intrinsically pleasant stimuli.

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