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The Anatomy of Addiction

(ABC 6 NEWS) – Cigarettes are highly addicting.

But why is it that some people who try cigarettes can put them down and never get addicted while others get hooked right away?

Doctors at Mayo Clinic say the answer lies in how your brain responds to nicotine.

A few puffs is all it takes for some people to become addicted to cigarettes.

And then there are people like Uncle Charlie.

“Everyone knows an Uncle Charlie,” says Dr. Richard Hunt. “Uncle Charlie was basically not a very productive person. He couldn’t hold a job, was married six times, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 25 years, and one day decided to stop smoking and he did. He didn’t have withdrawal symptoms, didn’t use any medications. So for the addicted smoker, they look at Uncle Charlie and say, if he could do that and I can’t there must be something wrong with me. And the reality is, there’s not something wrong with the person, it’s that their brain has been altered because of smoking cigarettes.”

Dr. Hurt heads the center for tobacco free living.

He says your chances of becoming addicted to cigarettes hinge on genetics, on how your brain responds to nicotine.

It only takes about five heartbeats for nicotine to go from the cigarette to your brain.

For many people it stimulates receptors that release dopamine and cause the pleasure response.

Over time, the receptors increase in number and change the anatomy of the brain.

So when you try to quit smoking you cut off the pleasure response because you are depriving the receptors of nicotine.

“And they object to that with withdrawal symptoms,” says Dr. Hunt.

Those symptoms include irritability, anxiety and the inability to concentrate.

If you make it through withdrawal and quit smoking, the number of nicotine receptors reduces to normal.

“But they don’t forget what all that felt like. So a smoker may have stopped smoking for six months and then be in a situation where they normally would smoke again, and the receptors say, ‘you know, it used to be when I was in that situation I’d have a cigarette, so I want a cigarette right this minute,” explains Dr. Hunt.

Such urges can last for years after quitting.

But Dr. Hurt says medications such as the nicotine patch or other non-nicotine prescription medications plus counseling can help smokers gain control over their addiction and move forward into a healthier, smoke-free life.

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