Best time of the month: fMRI helps women quit cigarettes

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  • Published: Jan 8, 2015
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Best time of the month: fMRI helps women quit cigarettes

Craven cravings

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) might pin down the best time of the month for women to quit smoking

A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study has demonstrated that a woman's stage in the menstrual cycle can affect her craving for nicotine if she is a smoker. The pilot study suggests that there might be a particular time of the month at which women wishing to quit cigarettes would be most successful although an unknown at this time is whether or not those women would be able to sustain their abstinence.

Adrianna Mendrek of the Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal, the University of Montreal and Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Canada, and colleagues Laurence Dinh-Williams, Josiane Bourque and Stéphane Potvin point out that more men than women smoke, but females apparently take less time to reach a point of nicotine dependency and have greater difficulty in quitting. Indeed, as the number of smokers in the "Western world" is currently in decline, the quitting rate is higher in men than in women and there are increasing numbers of young women smoking. The team suggests that cyclical hormones may be to blame a notion corroborated by other results with laboratory rodents. "Female rats become addicted more quickly, and are willing to work harder for the same quantity of dose," Mendrek says.

Female stats

These observations led Mendrek's team to suggest that females are perhaps at higher risk of addiction, and sex hormones could be the reason why. The researchers thus set about examining the potential differences between men and women in terms of functional neuroanatomy of craving and also to discern any neurological correlations with the woman's menstrual cycle and her degree of cigarette craving.

The researchers asked 34 male and female cigarette smokers who have more than 15 cigarettes a day to fill out a questionnaire and also took MRI scans of their brains while the volunteers looked at either neutral pictures or pictures designed to make them want to smoke. The women were given two scans, one at the beginning of the follicular phase of their menstrual cycle and a second at the mid-luteal phase; the team also recorded oestrogen and progesterone levels for the women.

"Our data reveal that cerebral activations associated with cravings for cigarettes are stronger at the beginning of the follicular phase just after menstruation than during the mid-luteal phase after ovulation," Mendrek explains. "Hormonal decreases of oestrogen and progesterone possibly deepen the withdrawal syndrome and increase activity of neural circuits associated with craving, but we did not find significant correlations between craving and these hormones," she adds. The findings suggest that it might be easier for women to overcome abstinence-related withdrawal symptoms during the mid-luteal phrase, in other words after ovulation, when their levels of oestrogen and progesterone are elevated, but psycho-social factors cannot be excluded, as tested women were explicitly asked in the study about the phase of their menstrual cycle. "Taking the menstrual cycle into consideration could help women to stop smoking," Mendrek adds.

Ciggy discrimination

Of course, menstrual cycle is not the only factor that determines the craving for a cigarette. "I do believe that psychosocial factors are much more important for quitting smoking, e.g., current stress, anxiety, depression symptoms etc. etc)," Mendrek told SpectroscopyNOW. Nevertheless, the team saw no difference between men and women overall in terms of neuronal circuit activity but certain areas of the frontal, temporal and parietal cortex did show different activation levels during different phases of the menstrual cycle, obviously, for the women only. "A greater knowledge of the neurobiological mechanisms governing addiction should enable us to better target treatment according to the smokers profile," she adds. The team concludes that " More studies are needed to investigate biological and psychosocial factors that contribute to sex/gender differences in tobacco smoking."

"I would like to emphasize that these are preliminary findings and much more has to be done to understand this relationship," Mendrek told SpectroscopyNOW.

Related Links

Psych J, 2014, online: "Sex Differences and Menstrual Cycle Phase-Dependent Modulation of Craving for Cigarette: An fMRI Pilot Study"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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