Smoking, Alcohol Use Linked To Different Brain Areas

By Beth Leipholtz 01/17/19

A new study suggests that individuals who smoke may do so in order to increase their brain connectivity with nicotine.

doctor holding brain

Connectivity in certain areas of the brain may affect smokers’ and drinkers’ tendencies to continue the behavior, new research has found. 

The study, done by researchers in the department of computer science at the University of Warwick, looked at the neural mechanisms connected to two types of substance use: drinking alcohol and smoking. 

Researchers studied 2,000 study participants, according to Science Daily. In doing so, they discovered that those who smoked had low connectivity, particularly in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which is a brain region that is connected with impulsivity.

This suggests, according to researchers, that individuals who smoke may do so in order to increase their brain connectivity with nicotine, which has a stimulating effect. It also suggests that being impulsive may play a role in beginning and continuing to smoke. 

In drinkers, researchers noted that there was high overall connectivity in the brain, particularly in the brain region associated with reward, which is the medial orbitofrontal cortex. The stimulation in this reward center, according to researchers, may be what leads some individuals to drink. 

“Importantly the extent of these functional connectivity changes in the brains of drinkers and smokers correlated with the amount of alcohol and nicotine being consumed,” Science Daily stated. “Critically they were even detectable in individuals smoking only a few cigarettes or drinking one unit of alcohol every day.”

Researchers also noted that it may be possible to study an individual’s connectivity at age 14 to predict whether they would smoke or drink at age 19. 

"These discoveries help to show that there are different neural bases of different types of addiction, and that the orbitofrontal cortex, a key brain region in emotion, is implicated in these two types of addiction,” said Professor Edmund Rolls from the University of Warwick. 

According to Professor Jianfeng Feng, also from the University of Warwick, the findings of this study could be vital when it comes to public health implications. Feng cited a World Health Organization study which states there are 1.1 billion people in the world who smoke and 2.3 billion who drink. He also noted that more than 3 million people die annually due to alcohol use disorder.

"These are key discoveries that advance our understanding of the neurological bases of smoking and drinking and also provide new evidence on the different neurological mechanisms that are related to these two types of human addictive behavior, smoking and drinking, and these advances have implications for prevention and treatment of these two substance use,” Feng noted. 

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.