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Emotional cues play role in addiction

Annual Report - Winter 2013

By Katrina Burton

Ever wonder why your brain makes decisions you later regret, like continuing to smoke?

Better yet, why does your brain see smoking as a pleasurable experience when you know it can lead to cancer and a host of other medical problems?

Francesco Versace, Ph.D., assistant professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science, may have the answer. 

As a researcher and former Duncan Family Institute fellow focused on examining the relationship between emotional and cognitive processes, Versace studies brain responses to emotional cues to understand smoking behavior, cessation and relapse.

Francesco Versace, Ph.D.
Photo: John Everett

“Nicotine increases the brain’s dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure,” Versace says. “Many smokers associate smoking with a pleasurable outcome, making it harder to quit and easier to relapse.”

In a recent study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, Versace and his colleagues looked at smokers enrolled in a tobacco-cessation program. The study compared smokers’ brain responses from cigarette cues to non-drug-related cues, including unpleasant images like mutilations, pleasant images like erotica and romance, and neutral images.

Although researchers anticipated that cigarette cues, when compared to neutral images, would produce a bolder response from smokers, Versace found that responses to erotic stimuli exceeded the depth of responses to cigarette cues in all activation areas, except the insula — an area of the brain closely linked to cravings.

“The insula was the only place where cigarette cues prompted a greater response than all other picture categories,” he says. “This finding is significant for future studies involving nicotine addiction and the link between smoking cues and relapse.”


The Tobacco Treatment Program had:

  • 41,456 patient visits since January 2006
  • 7,324 visits in fiscal year 2012
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