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Probing smokers’ responses to rewards in the lab and in daily life

DVALIn our previous work, we found that receiving a reward (specifically, winning money) was associated with a weaker response in a brain area called the striatum (a key brain reward region) in smokers who anticipated having a chance to smoke soon than in smokers who anticipated having to wait several hours before being able to use cigarettes. There is strong evidence that responses in the striatum provide an index of the relative value of reward-related stimuli. That is, larger and/or more preferred rewards evoke stronger responses in the striatum, and vice versa. Thus, one interpretation of our initial findings is that monetary gains were “less rewarding” for smokers who expected a chance to smoke soon, relative to those who did not expect to smoke in the near future. In other words, simply perceiving that they will have access to cigarettes in the near future appears to blunt the sensitivity of reward-related brain areas in smokers, at least when it comes to “non-drug” rewards like money. In other work, we have found that this change in brain reward sensitivity predicts clinically relevant behavior in the laboratory. Specifically, smokers showing the biggest decrease in the neural response to non-drug rewards when anticipating a chance to smoke were those least likely to delay the chance to smoke in order to earn additional money. Thus, we believe that the effect of smoking expectancy on reward sensitivity may play an important role in smoking relapse. One reason why smokers abandon quit attempts may be because alternative, non-drug sources of reinforcement (e.g., the prospect of saving money and improving health) seem less appealing in the face of an opportunity to smoke in the near future. 
 
In a current project funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01DA041438), we are addressing two key questions about the effects of smoking expectancy on the sensitivity to non-drug rewards. First, does the perception that cigarettes will soon be available dampen incentive processing during the anticipation of potential non-drug rewards, the hedonic responses to reward delivery, or both? Second, does the effect of perceived smoking opportunity on reward sensitivity extend beyond the lab to the “real world?” In order to tackle these questions, we are combining the unique and complementary strengths of functional magnetic resonance imaging and ecological momentary assessment methods, which will allow us to provide new insights into precisely how smoking expectancy alters responses to rewards in the brain and in daily life.