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Decisions on drugs: What happens in the brain?

March 8, 2016

When it comes to cigarettes, we’ve all heard the warnings: Smoking can cause a multitude of health problems and early death. Most of us also have seen the warning labels stuck on the side of cigarette packages in the U.S.

“SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy,” one reads.

But compared to warnings in other countries, that is one of the weaker and less prominent labels on cigarette packaging. Attempts to require graphic warning labels on cigarette packages are currently on hold due to legal action taken by the tobacco industry.

Research has also shown that the current U.S. warnings have little effect on people’s knowledge or attitudes about smoking.

“Cigarette smoking is a huge public health problem,” says Jon Macy, assistant professor at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “Despite all of the progress we’ve made in reducing smoking rates in the United States, it’s still the number one preventable cause of death in the U.S. — 500,000 deaths a year are still attributed to smoking. We’re at the point where we need to figure out what new and innovative things we can do to move that needle further to continue making progress in reducing smoking rates.”

Macy is hoping to move that needle through research he is conducting with Joshua Brown, associate professor in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The two professors met during last year’s speed-networking event hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

They decided to join forces to study what happens in the brain when people are assessing risks and how messaging affects those decisions.

“This research gives us an unprecedented window into decision-making about drugs, in the moment, and how that can be manipulated with messages,” Brown says.

A closer look

When it comes to addiction, both Macy and Brown have a long history of studying the issue. Macy’s research has focused on tobacco use behaviors and how public health policy influences those behaviors. Brown’s work has focused on cognitive neuroscience and brain imaging and, most recently, the regions of the brain that assess risky behavior.

Their current research involves both brain imaging and the graphic warning labels recommended by the government and health advocates.

Participants, who are already heavy smokers, lie down in the fMRI scanner in a Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Lab. They are then given a custom-made nicotine device that delivers measurable amounts of nicotine.

The scanner begins measuring brain activity while the participant is shown a series of pictures of cigarette packages — with both the current surgeon general’s warning and more graphic warning labels.

“It allows us to look at people’s decision-making about drugs in the moment,” Brown said. “People have looked at the effect of messages and people have looked at brain activity, but no one has looked at the effect of actually having people make the decision about drugs while they are having the brain activity measured.”

Watch a video about this research

Joining forces

Although they bring different areas of study to the table — Macy focuses on public health policy while Brown’s focus is neuroscience — both say the collaboration has been well worth it.

“We all recognize that the best way to move science forward is collaboration with people in different disciplines,” Macy says.

Brown says the differences in knowledge and focus have made the collaboration a success so far and will move the research further along and at a faster pace.

“It has been a great complementarity,” Brown says. “I think working together like this is already accomplishing a lot more than either of us could do on our own.

I think in the end, the vision of what will come out of this, is that we will have an understanding of brain activity and neurocircuitry and in a way that relates to very practical questions of public policy and effective interventions.”

This story, by April Toler, originally appeared in the Inside IU Bloomington e-newsletter.