Smoke screen: research sheds light on how likely you are to quit the cigs

Despite the apparent serenity with which the lady-on-the-advert manages to kick her fag habit, it can take more than the latest nicotine patch, lozenge or suppository to stop smoking.  And looking past the unnerving way such adverts actually manage to market your own will power back to you; self-discipline is a major component of the sinew joining that one last cig with actually quitting.

But just how dedicated are you to giving up? Perhaps more than you think. Emily Falk, director of University of Michigan’s Communication Neuroscience Laboratory, headed up a study to see if people who had increased neural activity when watching anti-smoking ads changed their smoking behaviour in the following months.

Twenty-eight heavy smokers trying to quit underwent fMRI brain scans as they watched a series of ads that drummed in the benefits of a smoke-free lifestyle. The part of the brain being studied was the prefrontal cortex, an area which is associated with figuring out conflicting thoughts as well as social control.

Prior to the scans, participants filled out a questionnaire which examined their smoking history, nicotine dependence and intentions about quitting. They also had their exhaled carbon monoxide (CO) levels measured.

A month later, researchers got in touch with the subjects to check their progress, and take a second CO reading to judge their fag intake. Smokers with increased neural activity during the study were found to be smoking less, dispite their own self-assessment. “We found that neural activity can predict behaviour change, above and beyond people’s own assessment of how likely they are to succeed” said Falk.

The implications of the research reach further than just cutting out the fags. Experiments, such as Falk’s, echo the studies of Dylan-Haynes, where through the study of a subject’s frontal lobe, scientists were able to predict choices before the subjects consciously made them.

“It is possible that the brain activity we are observing predicts behaviour change that is not predicted by people’s self-reports, because it is tapping into something that people aren’t consciously aware of when they initially see the ads,” said Falk.

Reason then, for frustrated quitters to take a celebratory puff on their nicotine inhalers. As it turns out, watching that woman calmly stub out her last cigarette and never go back could actually be doing you a service-you just don’t realise it.

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Under the Microscope: Parasites

Today’s instalment focusses on the blood-suckers of the insect empire. As always, images used with the kind permission of the owner.

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WHSD? The Week in Science

The study of lice DNA has revealed humans first started wearing clothes 170,000 years ago. Through analysing DNA sequencing of lice, David Reed was able to calculate when clothing lice genetically diverged from human head lice.

A new study has shown over 3000 survivors of the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The collaborative study found that survivors with low incomes (>$25,000 per year) were eight times more likely to suffer from PTSD than high-earners (<$100,000 per year).

A team of NASA scientists have come closer to figuring out the nuts and bolts of the Sun’s atmosphere. Data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed gas jets, known as spicules, reaching temperatures of millions of degrees, and sheds new light on why the Sun’s atmosphere is so much hotter than its surface.

A study by Newcastle University shows the importance of timing in healthy brain development. Dr Marcus Kaiser and Mrs Sreedevi Varier found that neurons need to make connections early, when they are physically close together, to function properly later on.

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Under the Microscope: Insects

The first instalment of a recurring feature looking at the world through the lens of an electron microscope. Images used with the kind permission of the owner.

Next time – parasites…

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WHSD? The Week in Science

New light has been shed on the astonishing way bacteria prioritise their DNA repair work. A team at the University of Bristol discovered a greater similarity between bacteria and human DNA repair than previously thought.

Type 1 diabetic men may be able to grow their own insulin-producing cells, research has shown. Scientists at Georgetown University Medical Centre were able to morph stem cells, taken from human testicular tissue, into insulin-secreting cells.  They managed use these cells to lower the blood glucose level of mice for around a week- effectively curing the of diabetes for the time period.

A study into the effects boxing has on health has shown 10-20% of boxers develop persistent mental impairments. Hans Förstl from the Technical University Munich found the repeated brain traumas resulting from a long boxing career may result in boxer’s dementia – which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists have snapped a forth planet in a solar system similar to our own. An international team of astronomers named the planet HR8799e, which sits in a solar system orbiting the HR8799 star, 129 light years away.

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The Lingering Ghost of Mephedrone

The bill to outlaw the psychoactive cathinone mephedrone was hurried through parliament earlier this year, but a study published in the Lancett has found that users are still getting hold of the substance. Its ban has also lead to the rise of ‘legal alternatives’ which are themselves banned cathinones.

Dr. Adam Winstock and colleagues surveyed users in June 2010 and compared the results to a similar survey taken in 2009. “Of the 150 respondents to the 2010 survey, 95 (63%) reported that they had continued to use mephedrone since the law had changed.” Said Dr. Winstock. “52 of these respondents (55%) said that they intended to continue using the same amount of mephedrone, and 38 (40%) reported that they would now use less.” The findings suggest that the controlling of the substance, which was made class B drug in April, has had little effect in preventing the use or availability of the drug

There has also been a rise in alternative legal highs, such as NRG 1. Earlier this year Dr. Simon Brandt along with colleagues at the Liverpool John Moores University tested a number of mephedrone replacements that they had ordered on-line. They found that a significant number contained variations of the banned cathinone.

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WHSD? The Week in Science

Jet-setters may run the risk of long-term memory problems. A study using Syrian hamsters has shown that chronic jet lag creates persistent changes in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that plays an important role in memory processing.

A ‘Russian doll’ galaxy has revealed the true power of black holes to a group of international astronomers. Called S26, this ‘bonsai’ black hole has provided an analogue for much larger galaxies. It sits in a regular-sized galaxy (NGC 7793 ) shooting out particle jets, which have now been analysed by scientists. They suggest that black holes are far more powerful than previously thought.

A group of scientists have finally succeeded in trapping antimatter. By cooling atoms down to 272 degrees below zero in order to sufficiently slow them, researchers were able to magnetically snare 38 antihydrogen atoms for a tenth of a second.

The same face may look either male of female-depending on where it is. Neuroscientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that two identical faces may appear notably different to the brain depending on where the face appears in the visual field of the observer.

Smoking pot may suppress immune function, a study has found. An international team of scientists discovered that cannabis compounds such as the pain suppressing THC can trigger unique immune cells which promote cancer growth.

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