"Our research group has begun to show that beliefs are as powerful a physical influence on the brain as neuroactive drugs," said lead author of the study Read Montague from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

For the study, the participants were asked to smoke two identical cigarettes. The participants in the groups that was told that their cigarettes were nicotine free showed different brain activity that those who believed their cigarettes contained nicotine.

Nicotine has formidable effects throughout the brain, especially in the reward-based learning pathways. Nicotine teaches the brain that smoking leads to reward. Once the brain learns that correlation, the addictive chemical cycle is difficult to break.

In this study, scientists tracked the brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging. After smoking cigarettes, volunteers played a reward-based learning game while their brains were scanned.

The subjects viewed a historical stock price graph, made an investment, and repeated the cycle multiple times. Researchers used computational models of learning signals thought to be generated by the brain during these kinds of tasks.

"Just as drugs micromanage the belief state," Montague said, "maybe we can micromanage beliefs to better effect behavior change in addiction."

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

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