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Nicotine Addiction

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Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine is highly addictive. Biological explanations for nicotine addiction emphasise nicotine’s effect on the mesolimbic pathway (the brain’s pleasure centre), releasing dopamine that triggers a pleasure response. If something is pleasurable and specifically tied to the reward system in the brain, it’s easy to understand why it might be addictive.

Learning theory extends the biological explanation of nicotine addiction by stating that this pleasurable neurochemical response to nicotine acts as positive reinforcement. However, it also explains addiction through negative reinforcement, meaning that the desire to avoid the withdrawal syndrome influences the smoking behaviour.

Nicotine Addiction Cigarette StudySmarterCigarette, Flaticon

How does brain chemistry contribute to nicotine addiction?

The desensitisation hypothesis Dani and Heinemann (1996) proposed examines addiction through its effects on neurotransmitters involved in physiological arousal and reward systems, such as acetylcholine (ACh). The neurotransmitters trigger the release of dopamine and produce a pleasurable response.

This study found that nicotine, when it enters the system, activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), which trigger the release of dopamine, resulting in this pleasant sensation. With continued nicotine use, these nAChRs become desensitised (i.e., continuous smoking has a diminishing effect), and eventually, they become inactive (with long-term use).

However, when a person falls asleep or abstains from smoking for some time (e.g., by quitting), nicotine levels decrease to the point that these inactive nAChRs reactivate and become sensitive again. Because of this increased number of nAChRs, other cholinergic systems (besides the well-known reward system) become hyperexcitable to synaptically released ACh, leading the person to smoke again.

Smoking again is a form of moderating the functional nAChRs.

Nicotine Addiction Positive response from nicotine in the brain StudySmarter The positive response from nicotine in the brain, Yzabelle Bostyn - StudySmarter Originals (Made in Canva)

Psychologists also explain nicotine addiction in terms of withdrawal syndrome and tolerance. They explain that the smoker continues to smoke to relieve the anxiety and restlessness of withdrawal. Tolerance means the addict feels the effect of nicotine less, i.e., they have to smoke more to feel the same effect.

The nicotine regulation model describes how a regular process of intake and withdrawal (when an addict is asleep, they cannot smoke and experience withdrawal) leads to addiction.

Evaluation of brain neurochemistry and nicotine addiction

Whilst the theory itself is quite strong, we need to look at its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

  • Olds and Milner (1954) found that rats implanted with an electrode to release dopamine when they operated a lever did so voluntarily, even if it meant walking across a painful electric floor. This suggests that the reward was rewarding for the rats despite the potential pain and made them addicted enough to continue, supporting the idea that dopamine is a key factor in addiction.

  • The variables are controlled and, therefore reliable.

Weaknesses

  • The study is reductionist in that it ignores other factors and bases addiction on a purely biological viewpoint.

  • Studies that focus on animals (Olds and Milner, 1954) lose generalisability because they are not truly applicable to humans.

How does learning theory explain nicotine addiction?

Learning theory explains nicotine addiction through observation and modelling.

Operant conditioning

Nicotine use is positively reinforced because it elicits a positive physiological response, including reduced anxiety and euphoric feelings, contributing to addiction. Similarly, if they observe others smoking and realise that it is socially acceptable and that one must do it to ‘fit in’, they may be more inclined to smoke themselves.Learning theory also explains nicotine addiction through negative reinforcement. When a smoker stops smoking after developing an addiction, they experience a withdrawal syndrome that negatively reinforces smoking as the addict smokes to avoid the negative effects of abstinence.

Classical conditioning

The positive effects of smoking are the primary reinforcer of smoking behaviour. Secondary reinforcers reinforce smoking.

Secondary smokers refer to things that do not directly produce the pleasurable effects of nicotine but are associated with it and, as such are rewarding.

One type of secondary reinforcement is reactivity to cues. These cues trigger nicotine craving because they remind the smoker of the pleasurable effects of smoking.

For example, when person A goes out with person B, she usually smokes after dinner. Similar environmental cues tell the brain that person A will soon smoke with person B, so it anticipates nicotine and compensates. This triggers a craving in the person.

Nicotine Addiction Secondary reinforcers of nicotine intake StudySmarterSecondary reinforcers of nicotine intake, Yzabelle Bostyn - StudySmarter Originals (Made in Canva)

Evaluation of learning theory and nicotine addiction

Just like the biological approach, learning theory has its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

  • Unlike some studies in the biological explanations, learning theory revolves primarily around human participants and is, therefore, more generalisable.

  • Moolchan et al. (2000) found that 75% of adolescent smokers had parents who smoked, supporting the learning theory approach to nicotine addiction and its origins.

Weaknesses

  • It is nomothetic.

  • It ignores free will and assumes that accountability does not exist and that when observed, people are likely to develop an addiction or have no choice but to try smoking.


Nicotine Addiction - Key takeaways

  • Biological explanations for nicotine addiction emphasise nicotine’s effect on the brain’s pleasure centre by releasing dopamine.
  • Learning theory extends the biological explanation of nicotine addiction to include positive and negative reinforcement and classical conditioning.
  • The biological explanation explains nicotine addiction through the desensitisation hypothesis, withdrawal, and tolerance.
  • The learning theory explanation states that the pleasurable effects of nicotine in the brain positively reinforce nicotine use.
  • Negative smoking reinforcement occurs when a person experiences a withdrawal syndrome and smokes to relieve the related symptoms.
  • The pleasant effect of nicotine is the primary reinforcer of nicotine addiction, but secondary reinforcement, objects, people, or places associated with nicotine reinforce it.

Frequently Asked Questions about Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine is addictive because nicotine receptors stimulate dopamine release in the pleasure centre of the brain, causing pleasurable feelings and inducing cravings for nicotine. 

Some treatments have been developed due to neurochemical explanations for addiction, such as nicotine replacement therapy, which treats addiction by replacing harmful versions of nicotine with less harmful versions such as nicotine patches or inhalers.

The brain responds to nicotine as it would to drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. So in a way, it is as addictive as them.

Yes, the physical effects of nicotine (pleasure) and withdrawal can contribute to addiction by making a person want to smoke.

Nicotine receptors stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure centre, causing the pleasurable feeling which will lead someone to smoke again and perhaps become addicted.

Final Nicotine Addiction Quiz

Question

Who proposed the desensitisation hypothesis? 

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Answer

Dani and Heinemann (1996).

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Question

What is the mesolimbic pathway?

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Answer

The pleasure centre of the brain.

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Question

What does ACh stand for?


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Answer

Acetylcholine.

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Question

What is the desensitisation hypothesis?

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Answer

The desensitisation hypothesis Dani and Heinemann (1996) proposed examines addiction through its effects on neurotransmitters involved in physiological arousal and reward systems, such as acetylcholine (ACh). The neurotransmitters trigger the release of dopamine and produce a pleasurable response.

Show question

Question

What is tolerance?

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Answer

Tolerance means the addict feels the effect of nicotine less, i.e., they have to smoke more to feel the same effect.

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Question

How could positive reinforcement influence nicotine addiction?

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Answer

Nicotine use is positively reinforced because it elicits a positive physiological response, including reduced anxiety and euphoric feelings, contributing to addiction.

Show question

Question

What are the physiological effects of nicotine?

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Answer

Reduced levels of anxiety and increased feelings of euphoria.

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Question

How can withdrawal syndrome explain nicotine addiction?


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Answer

When a smoker abstains, they experience withdrawal syndrome, which negatively reinforces smoking behaviour as the addict smokes to avoid the adverse effects of abstinence.  

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Question

What are the primary reinforcers of nicotine addiction?

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Answer

The positive effects of smoking are the primary reinforcer of smoking behaviour.

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Question

What are some secondary reinforcers of nicotine addiction?

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Answer

Smoking is reinforced by secondary reinforcers, which refer to things that do not directly produce the pleasurable effects of nicotine but are associated with it and, as such are rewarding.


One type of secondary reinforcement is reactivity to cues. These cues trigger nicotine craving because they remind the smoker of the pleasurable effects of smoking.


For example, when person A goes out with person B, she usually smokes after dinner. Similar environmental cues tell the brain that person A will soon smoke with person B, so it anticipates nicotine and compensates. This triggers a craving in the person.

Show question

Question

What is cue-reactivity and how does it contribute to nicotine addiction?

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Answer

Cue-reactivity is a type of secondary reinforcement. These cues trigger a craving for nicotine as they remind the smoker of the pleasurable effects of smoking.

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Question

What is cue-reactivity?

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Answer

This is when an addict responds to indirect cues that link to their addiction, creating cravings.

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Question

What is the nicotine regulation model?

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Answer

The nicotine regulation model describes how a regular process of intake and withdrawal (when an addict is asleep, they cannot smoke and experience withdrawal) leads to addiction.

Show question

Question

When might an addict regularly experience withdrawal?


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Answer

When they are asleep.

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