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World first “brain training” could help smokers quit for good

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Simple computer-based exercises which train smokers’ brains to improve their impulse control are being trialled at Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

It’s hoped the world-first Inhibitory Smoking Training (INST) program could help smokers give up for good.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Petra Staiger, said tobacco remained the leading preventable cause of illness and death worldwide, killing approximately six million people every year.

“Despite the wide range of treatments designed to help people quit smoking, the vast majority relapse within six months,” Associate Professor Staiger said.

Deakin University cognitive neurosciences expert Dr Melissa Hayden, who is also on the INST team, says research suggests difficulties overcoming addiction may be partly due to an impaired ability to control automatic impulses.

“Recent advances in neuroscience have highlighted that one way to address this difficulty is by retraining people’s brains to improve their impulse control,” Dr Hayden said.

The INST trial is a collaboration with Dr Natalia Lawrence in the UK where the training technique has already enjoyed success helping people decrease the amount of unhealthy food they eat, leading to long-term (six months) weight loss.

The training has also helped people significantly reduce their alcohol consumption and Associate Professor Staiger said the method could have significant benefits over other quit programs.

“For a start, it’s cost effective. Australians have highlighted that the financial costs associated with smoking are the number one reason they want to quit,” she said.

“That means there’s a need for smoking treatments to not only be effective, but also cost-effective if they are going to facilitate quitting for good.

“If it works, this computer brain training task has the potential to reduce the global prevalence of smoking at no cost to the consumer.”

Associate Professor Staiger said the program was also time-efficient, taking only “10 to 15 minutes per day for two weeks”.

“Plus with brain training there are no negative side-effects. Quitting aids like patches or gum can sometimes have adverse side-effects which negatively impact their uptake and long-term adherence, but there are none of those issues here.” 

Researchers with the INST team are still looking for participants to take part in the world-first trial.

“We’re looking for smokers who wish to quit, aged between 18 and 60, living in the Melbourne metropolitan area and who smoke at least 10 cigarettes daily on average,” Associate Professor Staiger said.

“It’s a very simple program and you’ll only need access to a computer and internet for a two-week period.”

To find out more about the trial, contact the INST team at: inst@deakin.edu.au

Odette Visser