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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013 Sep;229(2):345-55. doi: 10.1007/s00213-013-3113-x. Epub 2013 May 5.

Greater risk sensitivity of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in young smokers than in nonsmokers.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA.



Despite a national reduction in the prevalence of cigarette smoking, ~19% of the adult US population persists in this behavior, with the highest prevalence among 18-25-year-olds. Given that the choice to smoke imposes a known health risk, clarification of brain function related to decision-making, particularly involving risk-taking, in smokers may inform prevention and smoking cessation strategies.


This study aimed to compare brain function related to decision-making in young smokers and nonsmokers.


The Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) is a computerized risky decision-making task in which participants pump virtual balloons, each pump associated with an incremental increase in potential payoff on a given trial but also with greater risk of balloon explosion and loss of payoff. We used this task to compare brain activation associated with risky decision-making in smokers (n = 18) and nonsmokers (n = 25), while they performed the BART during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were young men and women, 17-21 years of age.


Risk level (number of pumps) modulated brain activation in the right dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices more in smokers than in nonsmokers, and smoking severity (Heaviness of Smoking Index) was positively related to this modulation in an adjacent frontal region.


Given evidence for involvement of the right dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices in inhibitory control, these findings suggest that young smokers have a different contribution of prefrontal cortical substrates to risky decision-making than nonsmokers. Future studies are warranted to determine whether the observed neurobiological differences precede or result from smoking.

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