Not everything was better in the past, but many things were better for smokers. In offices, the stress could be relieved with chain smoking, thick clouds of smoke created a dim, intoxicating restaurant atmosphere everywhere, and even on the plane, ashtrays were handed out to look out over the clouds. But the addictive Marlboro man has lost some of his sexiness. Smoking is no longer a harmless everyday companion, it is unhealthy. Undisputed.

Anyone who still wants to ruin themselves by smoking has been banished into exile for a long time – in front of the door, in disgusting corners, clearly marked squares of shame. Public life has become uncomfortable for smokers – despite this, the number of smokers in this country is increasing. Why can so many young people, against their better judgment, not keep their hands off the cigarette butt? The answer could be found in our brain structure.

127,000 people die in this country every year as a result of tobacco consumption. And that ten years earlier than her non-smoker self would actually have had in terms of lifetime. Nevertheless, almost every third person over the age of 14 in Germany smokes. Ascending trend. An international team of researchers looked at brain scans of around 800 smokers and non-smokers, aged 14, 19 and 23, respectively, to find out what drives them to smoke and what leads them to nicotine addiction. They want to have found an answer in the gray matter. Gray matter is found in the brain and spinal cord and is an important part of the central nervous system. Their development is complete by puberty, while brain development continues into adulthood.

Two areas of the brain come into focus as a result of the analysis. Both belong to the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex and are part of the so-called ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is involved, among other things, in inhibiting negative feelings and in processing risk and fear. The scientists at the University of Cambridge found that young people who started smoking at the age of 14 had significantly less gray matter in the left part of this brain area on average. How this comes about is still unclear. It may be a “hereditable biomarker” for nicotine addiction. The less brain mass in this area can lead to “disinhibition”: impulsive, irregular behavior that results from a limited ability to consider the consequences and increases the likelihood that young people will start smoking in the first place.

The fact that people develop a nicotine addiction, on the other hand, could be related to the other side of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. In this area, too, the researchers found less volume among young smokers. The loss of mass also seems to be linked to the start of smoking. According to the scientists, the lower brain mass could have an impact on resistance and control of smoking behavior.

“The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a key region for dopamine, the brain’s stimulant. It has long been suspected that dopamine not only plays a role in rewarding experiences, but also influences self-control,” says Barbara Sahakian, who collaborated on the study . Sahakian is Professor of Psychiatry at Cambridge University. “Less gray matter in this brain region can limit cognitive function, leading to less self-control and a propensity for risky behaviors, such as smoking.”

The research team is convinced that they have found evidence of a “neurobehavioural mechanism” that could not only lead to early nicotine consumption, but also to long-term dependence.

Source: Nature, Cambridge, Debra Study, Federal Department of Health