Converging evidence from several theories of the development of incentive-sensitization to smoking-related environmental stimuli suggests that the ventral striatum plays an important role in the processing of smoking-related cue reactivity.
Twenty-six healthy right-handed volunteers (14 smokers and 12 nonsmoking controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during which neutral and smoking-related images were presented. Region of interest analyses were performed within the ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens (VS/NAc) for the contrast between smoking-related (SR) and nonsmoking related neutral (N) cues.
Group activation for SR versus N cues was observed in smokers but not in nonsmokers in medial orbitofrontal cortex, superior frontal gyrus, anterior cingulate cortex, and posterior fusiform gyrus using whole-brain corrected Z thresholds and in the ventral VS/NAc using uncorrected Z-statistics (smokers Z = 3.2). Region of interest analysis of signal change within ventral VS/NAc demonstrated significantly greater activation to SR versus N cues in smokers than controls.
This is the first demonstration of greater VS/NAc activation in addicted smokers than nonsmokers presented with smoking-related cues using fMRI. Smokers, but not controls, demonstrated activation to SR versus N cues in a distributed reward signaling network consistent with cue reactivity studies of other drugs of abuse.