Tobacco use among teens have fallen in the last couple years, but rates remain buoyed by the popularity of e-cigarettes. According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 4 high school students have reported using a tobacco product in the last 30 days.
Still, smoking is a fixture for teen culture. We’ve known for a while that part of this has simply to do with the fact that younger brains aren’t fully developed—and the parts of the brain that are designed to control impulse and assess risks properly just have not matured. More recently, we’re learning which specific parts of the brain seem to be undercooked during adolescence—which may, in fact, open up the key to reversing some of these trends and reducing teen smoking rates across the world.
In a new study published in Nature Communications on Tuesday, British and Chinese researchers found that gray matter volume in the brain is linked to a desire to smoke during adolescence. In fact, it also seems to affect exactly how strong nicotine addiction feels.
“Smoking is perhaps the most common addictive behavior in the world, and a leading cause of adult mortality,” Trevor Robbins, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge and a co-author of the new study, said in a press release. “The initiation of a smoking habit is most likely to occur during adolescence. Any way of detecting an increased chance of this, so we can target interventions, could help save millions of lives.”
The new findings are based on an analysis of brain imaging and self-reported smoking habits from over 800 young people aged 14, 19, and 23. The researchers found that on average, those who had begun smoking by the time they were 14 had significantly less gray matter volume in both the left frontal lobe and right frontal lobe.
The human brain consists of two types of main tissue: white matter and gray matter. The latter comprises about 40 percent of the brain. It’s chock full of cell bodies and dendrites that communicate with neurons that are close by—helping to facilitate information processing and mediate a person’s ability to think and reason quickly. It’s especially important in fetal development—and gray matter growth peaks before adolescence even begins.
Moreover, the left frontal is linked to decision-making and rule breaking. To that end, it’s not too surprising that someone with deficient rates of gray matter in this area may be more likely to start smoking. Loss of gray matter in the right frontal lobe (linked to seeking sensations) seemed to occur only after someone started smoking—which would suggest a feedback loop that encourages continued smoking thanks to “hedonic motivation.”
The study does have its limitations. Although this is a pretty large dataset, the brain imaging data comes from individuals living in four European countries (the U.K., France, Germany, and Ireland). It’s not yet clear how much neurological variation may be observed outside of just Western Europe, and how strong this could be linked to smoking habits. And the study’s findings can’t be taken as cause-and-effect quite yet; they simply suggest a strong link.
But should that link be proven out in further research, the findings could help in giving researchers more of an idea for how to combat teen smoking—either by using these new insights to deter teens away from starting smoking, or by leading us to developing a more concerted intervention that helps to offset the reduction of gray matter in these areas. With nearly one in five adults each attributed to smoking in the United States alone, there is no shortage of urgency for aggressive prevention of teen smoking.