The age period spanning late adolescence to emergent adulthood is associated with the highest prevalence of cigarette smoking in the United States, and is also a time of continued brain development. Nonetheless, although prior research has shown group differences in brain structure associated with smoking status in adults, few studies have examined how smoking and associated behavioral states relate to brain structure in this age group. Neuroimaging and lesion studies have suggested that the insula, a cortical region that integrates heterogeneous signals about internal states and contributes to executive functions, plays an important role in cigarette smoking behavior. Using high-resolution structural magnetic resonance imaging, we therefore measured cortical thickness of the insula in 18 smokers and 24 nonsmokers between the ages of 16 and 21 years. There were no group differences in insula thickness, but cigarette exposure (pack-years) was negatively associated with thickness in right insula. Cigarette dependence and the urge to smoke were negatively related to cortical thickness in the right ventral anterior insula. Although the results do not demonstrate causation, they do suggest that there are effects of cigarette exposure on brain structure in young smokers, with a relatively short smoking history. It is possible that changes in the brain due to prolonged exposure or to the progression of dependence lead to more extensive structural changes, manifested in the reported group differences between adult smokers and nonsmokers. Structural integrity of the insula may have implications for predicting long-term cigarette smoking and problems with other substance abuse in this population.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Psychiatry and Mental health