You’ve tried and tried to quit smoking, but nothing seems to be able to break the cycle of addiction. Well, there could be a novel solution coming soon, as scientists believe that they might have found the spot in the brain that is connected to the inability to shake a bad habit.
Medical science has long been looking for a specific area in the human brain that could be tagged as the culprit in cigarette and drug addiction. Different parts of the brain have come into the spotlight, but none have proven to be the supposed addiction center. A collaborative report by the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and University of Southern California might have finally pinpointed this important region: the “insula.”
The insula, also called the “insular cortex,” is buried within the “lateral sulcus,” which is a structure that divides the front lobe/parietal lobe area from the temporal lobe. Those are the major sections of the brain. What exactly does it do in the brain? It is thought that the insula has a role in emotion, emotional memory, and motivation. By emotional memory, it’s meant that this portion of the brain helps create memories by linking emotions with physical sensations.
Basically, some scientists believe that what you perceive as feelings is based on physical reactions. So, the insula helps process physical sensations and interpret them as emotions. Studies on this part of the brain have implicated the insula in basic emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, and happiness.
The most recent study decided to take a look at whether the insula could be instrumental in cravings and addiction. This aspect has been looked at in other studies involving imaging, but never directly proven.
The research team looked at 69 people who had suffered from brain damage. All of these study subjects had been smokers before whatever incident happened that caused the brain damage to occur. Of these individuals, 19 had damage to the insula area of the brain. Of those 19, 13 of them had quit smoking after the brain damage had occurred — what’s more, 12 of them had done it almost effortlessly (in contrast to the usual, agonizing process that quitting smoking is). Some of the other subjects quit smoking, but it seemed to be a much easier and faster process for the patients with insula damage.
So, it seems that when the insula is not functioning properly, the cravings for a cigarette are reduced. If we go back to the theorized function of this area of the brain, we can see why it might have this pivotal role in addiction. When a person is smoking, he/she experiences many sensations in the body, which are perceived as pleasurable. Remember how the insula is thought to have an emotional memory function? Well, it’s conceivable that the insula makes the brain and body remember the positive feelings associated with smoking, making you crave cigarettes in order to relive the pleasure.
This discovery could mean the future development of new alternative ways to “cure” addiction that target the brain. The study only looked at smoking, but the insula could also be the source of other addictions, such as those to food, alcohol drugs, etc. As a professor Deborah Mash put it, “It may be that the insula is the seat of the soul for the compulsive taking of all abused substances.”