Our brains will help drive efforts to curb smoking, tobacco use on campus

Come fall, the air and grounds on the University of Oregon campus will be noticeably different. The UO will be an entirely smoke and tobacco-free campus.

Some of the messages to be presented to students, faculty and staff will be based on how the brain responds directly to information -- according to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The hope is that MRI technology in the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging will help show smokers a healthy path to life without cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco.

This summer, Elliot Berkman, assistant professor of social psychology in the Department of Psychology, will be sampling some members of the campus community, who, while undergoing MRI scans, will view a variety of motivational messages designed to help users kick the habit. "Some of the messages that ultimately go out in the fall," he says, "will be part of a neurally informed prevention effort."

The approach builds on but uses a slightly different approach than a recently published study done by Berkman, Emily Falk at the University of Michigan and Matthew Lieberman of UCLA. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health supported the study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science.

In the earlier study, they had found that the reactions they saw in the brain of smokers exposed to potential anti-smoking television ads were more predictive than what the subjects reported through traditional verbal reports of how ads made them feel. The brain responses, which they saw in the medial prefrontal cortex, were better indicators of the actions of other people in cities where the ads eventually appeared. Many called into the National Cancer Institute's 1-800-QUIT-NOW help line.

Berkman and Falk say that tapping the brain's predictive power in this way may affect future political advertising, commercial market research and public health campaigns. The latter is being tested with the UO's new policy. "Our goal is to develop an empirically validated intervention that we can provide to students, faculty and staff," Berkman says.

At an initial session, participants write numerous motivational cessation messages targeting themselves and their peers, and have their current smoking levels assessed. As they begin to quit, the participants are periodically sent text messages with the motivational messages they or a peer composed. Smoking is re-assessed several weeks later to measure the effectiveness of the anti-smoking messages.

"These messages are being sent to them by our automated text-messaging system throughout each day during their first 30 days of quitting," Berkman said. "I'll then use the neural data acquired prior to each subject's quit attempt to predict who is successful and who is not."

Further analyses will consider the differences in the effectiveness of self-generated and peer-focused messaging, as well as the linguistic properties of the actual messages to decipher what works best to help the participants succeed.

Berkman joined the UO faculty in June 2010, shortly after earning a doctorate at UCLA. His already growing research on smoking cessation caught the attention of Marci Torres, director of the UO's Healthy Campus Initiative, who sought his participation.

"Elliot's research aligning with our policy, although coincidental, has been invaluable," Torres said. "Elliot's work has been and will continue to be essential to our future efforts with the tobacco policy change. He has provided us with crucial info for how we market and educate the campus."

Berkman has been part of an effort to gather data on smoking rates on campus among current students, faculty and staff. "Focus groups that he is running will help as we work on issues of compliance," Torres said. "His research using MRI technology also will be useful as we create new and innovative ways to help people quit smoking. My hope is that the information he collects will help guide efforts to move individuals who smoke but aren't yet ready to quit through the stages of change to a point of decision where they can quit successfully."

Just how tough will this fall's transition to smoke and tobacco-free be?

"The news looks good, particularly among students," Berkman says. "There are not a lot of heavy smokers, but we have quite a few chippers -- those who smoke just a few cigarettes per day. But the research shows that even one or two cigarettes a day can still have harmful effects on health. Our goal is to get that number down to zero for those who want help."

The hope is, Berkman says, that this summer's brain-imaging efforts will help UO leaders find effective messaging that will "chip away" at those on campus who face that often uncontrollable urge to light up.