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Want to quit smoking? Try puzzles or adopt a hobby

Washington: Engaging in exciting or 'self-expanding' activities, such as puzzle-solving, games, or hobbies with one's partner can reduce craving for nicotine, helping smokers kick the butt, a new study has found.

Researchers including Arthur Aron, a Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, based the findings on a neuroimaging study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning that measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

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The fMRI scanning looked at the brains of nicotine-deprived smokers who engaged in a series of two-player cooperative games with their relationship partners during the actual time of the scanning. "Our study reveals for the first time using brain imaging that engaging in exciting or what we call 'self-expanding' activities, such as puzzle-solving, games, or hobbies with one's partner, appears to reduce craving for nicotine," said Aron.

"The self-expansion activities yielded significantly greater activation in a major reward region of the brain, which is associated with addictive behaviours, than did non-expanding conditions. "This suggests such activities may be a major new route to help people reduce the desire to smoke," Aron said.

Aron and lead author Xiaomeng Xu, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Idaho State University, explained that because engaging in self-expanding activities clearly stimulates the same pathways in the brain that are activated by nicotine self-expanding activities such as games could potentially substitute for the reward the brain receives from nicotine.

In the study, the team tested their theory with the use of fMRI during the cooperative game playing. The games were randomised between expanding and non-expanding activities. The study's expanding games offered new choices and more targets for study participants and were significantly more exciting.

The scientists believe that future research could focus on specific aspects of the self-expanding activities that produce this effect, as well as test the use of self-expansion activities in clinical interventions for smoking cessation. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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