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Kicking the Habit: Research Uses Pupil Tracking to Show Exercise May Reduce Cigarette Cravings

Kicking the Habit: Research Uses Pupil Tracking to Show Exercise May Reduce Cigarette CravingsIt is no secret that smoking is bad for your health. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world, claiming more lives each year than HIV, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, motor vehicle accidents, suicide, and homicide combined. A survey conducted by WHO revealed that almost 70% (32 million) of current adult smokers in the U.S. said they wanted to quit. But that is where the challenge lies; the addictive qualities of nicotine in cigarettes make smoking a tough habit to kick.

Researchers at the University of Exeter recently applied pupil tracking and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology to investigate the effect of exercise on cigarette cravings. The eye tracking study revealed some promising results that support previous research finding exercise to be effective in managing addiction by decreasing nicotine cravings and responses to smoking cues.

Using fMRI to detect changes in brain activity and eye tracking technology to measure and record exact eye movements, researchers investigated craving intensity in a group of 20 moderately heavy smokers before and after exercise. The subjects were asked to abstain from nicotine for 15 hours before the test. After 15 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, they were shown a variety of 60 neutral and smoking related images. The eye tracking device was used to measure how quickly the subjects’ eyes looked at cigarette related images (fixation speed) and for how long (fixation duration) compared to neutral images. The fMRI was used to investigate how the brain processed images of cigarettes before and after exercise. Subjects were asked to report on cravings during both phases of the study.

The results showed that before exercise, there was heightened activity to smoking images in the areas of the brain that relate to reward-processing and visual attention, and subjects fixated on cigarette related images 11% faster before exercise than after. The fMRI results after exercise did not show the same areas of activation in the brain, and visual tracking showed that exercise decreased the power of the images to grab visual attention. Scientists still don’t know the reason behind these results but suggest that it could be related to exercise-induced increases in dopamine levels or changes in blood flow to the areas of the brain associated with anticipation of award and pleasure from smoking.

This study proposes that although smokers trying to quit are constantly exposed to visual smoking cues in television, advertisements, and when seeing other smokers, they may be less tempted by these influences if they engage in physical activity. Beyond the list of physical and mental health benefits of exercise in general, it can be used as an alternative to pharmaceutical aids like the nicotine patch. This study was the first to employ fMRI and pupil tracking to observe at the effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, and is just one of many examples of how advancements in pupil tracking technology are being used answer human health-related questions.