nicotineQuitting smoking is quite challenging; successful abstention often takes years to achieve. Nicotine is highly addictive and socially acceptable, which makes quitting smoking and staying away from the nicotine that much harder. Developing new ways to treat the side effects of nicotine withdrawal could dramatically reduce nicotine relapse rates.

New research has pinpointed the circuitry in the brain associated with the increased anxiety many experience during nicotine withdrawal, which could lead to more effective methods for quitting, Science Daily reports. The findings are the result of several years of research conducted at multiple laboratories.

There are often several reasons for people to want to quit smoking, but it only takes one for an individual to start back up again. Most nicotine relapses occur in the first couple weeks of the attempt, and a heightened level of anxiety is often a culprit in relapse.

“We identified a novel circuit in the brain that becomes active during nicotine withdrawal, specifically increasing anxiety,” said principal investigator Andrew Tapper, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry. “Increased anxiety is a prominent nicotine withdrawal symptom that contributes to relapse in smokers attempting to quit.”

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and The Scripps Research Institute. A number of novel discoveries were made regarding the “interconnected brain mechanisms” which cause anxiety during nicotine withdrawal, according to the article. In the future, the findings may help researchers develop treatments which could inhibit the mechanisms responsible for the nicotine withdrawal induced anxiety.

“We’re now exploring whether the circuitry that we identified is involved in stress-induced anxiety in general, or specific to nicotine withdrawal-induced anxiety,” Tapper said. “We’re also exploring if this circuitry is engaged with other drugs of abuse.”

The study’s lead author was Rubing Zhao-Shea, MD, research assistant professor of psychiatry at UMMS.

The findings were published in Nature Communications.