03:24am Sunday 12 July 2020

Smokers' brains biased against negative images of smoking

This is precisely what happens with cigarettes in chronic smokers, according to a recent study by the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and Université de Montréal.

The study showed that chronic smokers have altered emotional reactions when they are exposed to negative and positive images associated with tobacco. “We observed a bias depending on how smoking is portrayed “, explained Le-Anh Dinh-Williams, a student at the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and the study’s first author. “For example, the brains of the smokers in our study were more aroused by images that showed smoking in a positive light than by images that encouraged them to stop. They were also more affected by aversive non-smoking related images than by images of the specific negative consequences of smoking.”

In Canada and the United States, approximately 20% of adults smoke cigarettes despite knowing its adverse effects. “We wanted to understand why knowing about the negative health impacts of tobacco does not prevent smokers from lighting up,” explained Ms. Dinh-Williams.

Approximately 70% to 95% of smokers who quit their bad habit will, despite their best efforts, start smoking again within one year. “Many factors make it difficult for people to quit. Part of the explanation could certainly be because cigarettes ‘trick’ the brains of smokers,” stated Stéphane Potvin, a co-author of the study and researcher at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Université de Montréal. “Specifically, we discovered that the brain regions associated with motivation are more active in smokers when they see pleasurable images associated with cigarettes and less active when smokers are confronted with the negative effects of smoking.”

Using neuroimaging techniques, the study researchers compared the emotional reactions of 30 smokers as they looked at aversive smoking-related images (e.g., lung cancer) compared to other aversive images (e.g., an old man on his deathbed) as well as appetitive smoking-related images.




–          Smokers have a 3 to 9 times greater risk of developing cancer, lung disease or heart problems. Cigarettes are also associated with fertility problems, premature aging, a lack of hygiene and social stigmatization, and they have a negative impact on the health of other people who are exposed to second-hand smoke.

–          Overall, 1 out of 2 smokers will die from tobacco use.


Dinh-Williams, L., Mendrek, A., Bourque, J., & Potvin, S. (2013). Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: The brain reactivity of chronic smokers when exposed to the negative value of smoking. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry, 50C, 66-73. Pubmed – See more at: http://recherchesantementale.qc.ca/publications-de-janvier-2014/#sthash.T7QDBzQy.dpuf


About the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal

The Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal (IUSMM) provides specialized and ultraspecialized services in mental health. A leader in its field, it develops knowledge through research, teaching and assessment. The IUSMM is a member of the large network of excellence in health of Université de Montréal. iusmm.ca

About the Research Centre of the IUSMM

At the forefront of knowledge, the Research Centre of the IUSMM is one of the largest venues for clinical research in mental health in French Canada. Through its partnership with the research department at Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies and the Research Centre of the Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montréal, it has the largest number of mental health researchers from the faculties of medicine, arts and sciences, and nursing from Université de Montréal and other universities. iusmm.ca/recherche



Catherine Dion

Communications Department – Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal

Phone: 514-251-4000, extension 2986 – Cell: 514-235-4036

[email protected]

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