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04/28/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

How Game Night With Your Spouse Could Help Lower Nicotine Cravings

Image Source via Getty Images

By Doug Hanson

Quitting smoking is not easy and certainly isn’t a game, or is it? Challenging your mind with games might help with the quitting process.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that nicotine may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine and often requires several attempts at quitting before smokers find success.

A recent study found that engaging in a challenging game with a romantic partner significantly lowered the cravings participants felt when going through nicotine withdrawal.

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This study was led by Xiaomeng Xu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Idaho State University.

The study looked at 20 couples that included at least one smoker and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning to monitor the brain of smokers going through nicotine withdrawal. The fMRI measures changes in blood flow that indicate brain activity.

The researchers monitored the participants while they played two-player games that required cooperation with their romantic partners while being scanned. The games consisted of a series of challenging and easy games that required the participation of the romantic partner to complete.

The challenging games offered new options and were more difficult for both participants. At least half of each kind of game contained images of a lit cigarette to possibly induce cravings.

In addition to the brain scans, the participants filled out a short questionnaire after each game to determine their level of craving for a cigarette, how they felt in general and how they felt about the game they just played.

The data showed that participants involved in games that were exciting and challenging had significantly decreased nicotine cravings.

Dr. Xu and his team believe the lowered nicotine craving was due to the activation of major reward zones within the brain during the more exciting game.

“Our study reveals for the first time using brain imaging that engaging in exciting or what we call ‘self-expanding’ activities, such as puzzle-solving, games, or hobbies with one’s partner, appears to reduce craving for nicotine,” Dr. Arthur Aron, a member of the research team, said in a press release.

This research team hopes that future studies will be able to more closely define the aspect of the games that triggers the brains reward zones in the hope of finding a way to clinically treat the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Dr. Aaron concluded, “In addition to the importance of this work for smoking cessation, this was also the first brain-imaging study to demonstrate the rewarding effects of doing specifically self-expanding activities with one’s romantic partner, an effect shown in many behavioral studies to be very beneficial to relationships, but now supported by brain research.”

The authors acknowledged that this study was limited by its lack of eye-tracking or other methodology to measure distraction from the cigarette cue.

This study was published April 21 in PLOS ONE.

This study was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Psychological Association.

The authors reported that several members are now or have previously received funding from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.

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