Use of an Automated Mobile Application to Assess Effects of Nicotine Withdrawal on Verbal Fluency: A Pilot Study

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Mild-to-moderate impairment in frontally mediated functions such as sustained attention, working memory, and inhibition have been found to occur during tobacco withdrawal and may present a barrier to successful cessation. These findings have led to studies evaluating cessation treatments that target nicotine withdrawal related cognitive impairment. The instruments currently used to assess cognitive function provide detailed and specific information but have limitations including being time consuming, cumbersome, anxiety provoking, and having poor ecological validity. The authors examined the feasibility of using a mobile computer application to test verbal fluency (VF) as a quick, easy-to-administer, and more ecologically valid method of measuring the effects of short-term smoking abstinence on frontally mediated cognitive functions. Thirty participants completed 2 assessments—1 during ad lib smoking and 1 after overnight abstinence. At each assessment, semantic and phonemic VF tests were administered using a mobile application and nicotine craving and withdrawal symptom severity was assessed. In repeated assessments, performance on both semantic and phonemic VF tests is expected to improve due to practice effects; however, significant improvements were observed only in semantic (p = .012) but not phonemic (p = .154) VF. In addition, the change between assessments in phonemic (but not semantic) score was significantly associated with withdrawal (p = .006) and craving (p = .037) severity measured postabstinence. This study demonstrates that nicotine withdrawal has differential effects on semantic versus phonemic VF suggesting impairments of working memory, attention, and inhibition. These effects were measured using methods easily used in large groups of participants, potentially with remote test administration and automated scoring.

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