The results of a new pilot study released at the Global Addiction Conference, Rio de Janeiro, have demonstrated for the first time how the effects of “smoking” on the brain and nervous system can be monitored using functional MRI scanning – giving researchers the unique opportunity of visualising exactly what happens in a smoker’s brain when they inhale on a cigarette.
The team behind the research is from the international translational imaging centre, Imanova, based at Imperial College London’s Hammersmith Hospital campus. Led by Imaging Scientist, Dr Matt Wall, the study found that using e-cigarettes in an MRI environment has the potential to explore the regions of the brain involved in the sensory and behavioural aspects of smoking. This exciting new feasibility study (which paves the way for larger, more in-depth controlled research programmes) will lead the way in a revolutionary approach to research on smoking using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This pilot project using e-cigarettes represents a promising new model for the study of smoking and the brain processes involved in addiction more generally.
The initial findings come in the midst of a current “war of words” between the e-cigarette industry and anti-tobacco campaigners. With a lack of robust, scientific evidence, both sides of the debate are finding it hard to support their arguments about the role and positioning of vaping products. Some commentators see e-cigarettes as a potentially valuable smoking cessation tool, while others are concerned they are a new ‘fad’ that normalises smoking and may encourage young, non-smokers to take up the habit.
The pressing need for clear decisions on regulating the global e-cigarette markets has recently been intensified by recommendations from the recent WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, calling for regulations along the lines of policies concerning other tobacco products, such as advertising, sponsorship and promotion. Clearly, such important decisions cannot be sensibly made in the absence of robust evidence that examines the effects of e-cigarettes on human physiology, including the relevant brain systems that support smoking behaviour.
In the past, it has been impossible to monitor these effects using conventional cigarettes or tobacco products due to the obvious limitations and safety issues associated with “volunteers” smoking in the confines of an MRI scanner. However, the nature of vaping products, allows neuroscientists to effectively record brain activity and stimulation with each “drag” of the e-cigarette.
Dr Wall explains; “The behavioural and sensory aspects of smoking are important factors in maintaining the addiction to cigarettes but their brain correlates have never been studied directly in humans. The practical and safety issues involved with using combustible materials in the confined MRI environment have effectively prevented serious neuroscientific work using modern methods. “However, electronic cigarettes obviate many of these practical problems and safety issues and also provide a very good simulation of ‘traditional’ smoking. We have shown that using e-cigarettes with fMRI is an excellent paradigm for direct evaluation of the effects of smoking on human neurophysiology.”
He adds; “In this feasibility study, we saw significantly increased smoking-related activity in brain regions associated with motor responses, sensory functions (taste/flavour responses) and other brain areas often associated with processing of reward stimuli.”
For the purpose of this study, a custom-built optical recording device was used to record the light output of the LED at the tip of the e-cigarette in order to log smoking onset, strength and duration. Physiological data (pulse oximetry, respiration) were also recorded and used to provide post-hoc correction of the fMRI data for physiological noise effects.
Imanova is a unique, advanced medical imaging Contract Research Organisation (CRO), with established, state-of-the-art molecular imaging techniques based on preparation of novel radiopharmaceuticals and supporting drug development and clinical trials. The imaging capabilities and approach of Imanova also offer a real benefit to a range of consumer health companies seeking to demonstrate product differentiation with scientific evidence in their respective markets. Imanova Director, Roughan Sheedy, comments; “E-cigarettes are undergoing explosive growth in the market but are currently unregulated, largely due to a lack of evidence based research “Yet, smoking cessation products lend themselves to the MRI scanning techniques as they contain a known psychoactive substance, nicotine, which has clear, previously demonstrated effects on the brain and body.
“It’s important to note that this study is just one way of demonstrating the unique scanning techniques provided by the team at Imanova. We have a long heritage of working with the pharmaceutical industry and are recognised worldwide for imaging sciences and their application to clinical trials and drug and diagnostic development.
“However, we are confident that this study will not only illustrate a breakthrough in scanning capabilities in the field of e-cigarettes but will also highlights the benefits of Imanova’s service offering to a wider, consumer healthcare market seeking to demonstrate product differentiation with scientific evidence in their respective markets.”