Manipulating Memories May Help Smokers Kick the Habit

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Smokers trying to quit often report that certain cues, such as seeing other people smoke, cause them to crave a cigarette, which typically triggers a relapse. But memory retrieval-extinction training-a technique that alters memories associated with craving-may help.

Researchers selected 72 adults (average age, 48) who smoked 10 or more cigarettes per day and randomly assigned them to undergo memory retrieval-extinction training or extinction training alone. To retrieve smoking-related memories, the first group viewed a five-minute video depicting people smoking. The others viewed a video of people washing dishes. After 10 minutes, both groups completed a 60-minute extinction training session designed to break the cue-reward cycle. Here, participants were repeatedly exposed to smoking triggers but were not permitted to smoke. The process was repeated the following day.

At one month, participants in the memory retrieval-extinction training group reported, on average, less craving than the control group and they smoked fewer cigarettes each day; seven and 10, respectively. These self-reported smoking findings were corroborated by the participants’ carbon monoxide levels, which were also assessed.

The authors, who published their findings in 2017 in JAMA Psychiatry, suggest that this approach could work well with other smoking cessation interventions. Larger studies that investigate the long-term efficacy of this technique will help clarify its true value.