Smoking in the scanner?

There is a new paper out in Scientific Reports, titled “Investigating the neural correlates of smoking: Feasibility and results of combining electronic cigarettes with fMRI”. This is a study that have managed to combine actual smoking with functional MRI (fMRI).

Most studies looking at brain processing of smoking run into trouble with MRI. This is because smoking and scanning do not go well together. Hospitals don’t allow smoking, things should generally not be on fire in the MRI scanner, and ventilation is an issue when you’re lying in a narrow bore. Because of this, we haven’t been able to properly look at the sensations and behaviour of smoking alongside the effects of nicotine (and other active products in cigarette smoke). This study tries to get around these practical problems and also look at the brain response to real-time smoking.

For the practical part, the study used e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes solve some of the problems with smoking in the scanner (fire and ventilation to some extent), but can cause image artifacts and may also contain metal. The paper shows how smaller types of e-cigarettes did not cause image artifacts plus were safe to use in the scanner from a metal point of view. E-cigarette smoking is a good mimic for traditional smoking, so this is a workable model of ‘the real thing’ that fits with MRI.

In terms of brain responses, the authors found activation in several brain regions associated with smoking e-cigarettes. These regions included motor cortex, insula, cingulate, amygdala, putamen, thalamus, globus pallidus and cerebellum. There were also (relative) deactivations in the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex associated with smoking.


Image from the paper showing brain responses when participants were instructed to smoke. Red-yellow is activation and blue is deactivation.

Some of this activation is (unsurprisingly) linked to movement. The motor cortex activation (stronger on the left hand side, which correspond to right-hand side motion) is most likely due to movements associated with smoking. Similarly, cerebellar activation is often related to motion. Other regions are associated more with the effects of smoking. The putamen is part of a brain region called the striatum, which plays a role in reward and in supporting addiction. The ventral striatum (and orbitofrontal cortex) are associated with drug craving.

From a personal point of view, having worked a great deal with breathing, I am excited that the paper showed activation in the insula and cingulate. Both are structures involved in breathing and breathlessness tasks. However, without behavioural measures to link the findings to, it is hard to say what this activation means in this setting. It is important to remember that just because a similar activation pattern occurs with two different tasks, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the activation means the same. Each region of the brain typically handle more than one thing, particularly cortical regions.

The authors also found that activation patterns was similar both the participants were told when to smoke and when to stop (first scan), and when they could smoke at will (second scan). However, in the second scan, the activation was weaker. The authors suggest that this could be because this task was more variable, meaning more between-subject variance and poorer timing (from a fMRI point of view). It could also be an order effect, as the subjects had more nicotine in their system in the second scan. This fits with lower activation in reward-related brain regions in the second scan. Or it could simply be because to smoke on command or whenever one wants to are different situations. Again, it is hard to tell why without other measures.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting paper, both from a methods point of view and for those interested in smoking processing and effects on the brain. It’s also written in a nice and easily accessible way. I’d recommend looking it up:

Reference: Matthew B. Wall, Alexander Mentink, Georgina Lyons, Oliwia S. Kowalczyk, Lysia Demetriou & Rexford D. Newbould. Investigating the neural correlates of smoking: Feasibility and results of combining electronic cigarettes with fMRI. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 11352 (2017)
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-11872-z



I have been thinking about art lately. The University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Academic Writing is coming up and I have just finished reviewing a few papers and grant applications. Mostly, this has made me consider how scientists can suffocate enthusiasm for even the most exciting finding in a single passive paragraph (never mind a whole string of them), and I may do a post about the horrors of the ‘academese’ language at a later stage. However, as the planning for next year’s Festival of the Mind is also underway, I wanted to write about something more positive: how art and science can work together.

Science and art to me are two sides of the same coin. Both aim to understand and describe the world, each in their own way. Science is the more objective of the two, but the way we gather and interpret data is without doubt influenced by our assumptions and world view. Art, on the other hand, challenges these assumptions, offers new ways of looking at the world. In short, science can answer our questions, but art may just help us ask the right ones. We need both to progress.

I  have a great deal of time for art barging into the halls of data and analysis (or for that matter, science picking up the brushes and the paint). Either way, it is a bold move, and the results could be equally impressive. As a prime example on how art and science can work together, watch this video by Jan Fröjdman, who has painstakingly pieced together still images of Mars (from the HiRISE camera) to generate a representation of a ‘live’ flight over the red planet. It is an absolutely stunning interpretation of data.

A FICTIVE FLIGHT ABOVE REAL MARS by Jan Fröjdman (see Vimeo for image credit).

Sheffield has a thriving art scene, and one that is not frightened of interacting with the sciences. The before-mentioned annual Festival of Academic Writing lets academics write creative pieces for the Journal of Imaginary Research and poke fun at the near-obligatory passive voice to their little hearts’ content. I very much enjoyed taking part last year and have just signed up for the upcoming November workshop. There are plenty of art installations throughout both the year and the city that communicate hot-off-the-press research to the public alongside more traditional science outreach events. The winter gardens is a frequently used venue and a good place to go for a bit of lateral thinking. There are artists who specialise in the communication of science and medicine, for example through the live-drawing of conferences, and who manage to reduce complex concepts to easily-interpreted visuals. And how about the live art-rock soundtrack to footage from the Hubble Telescope (plus three Georges Méliès films for good measure)? These are excellent ways of communicating science, as well as perhaps offering up new ways of looking at old questions.

Above are examples of Sheffield’s Art+Science scene (all images reproduced with permission). At the top left, there is Luke Jerram’s giant inflatable E. Coli hovering in the Winter Gardens, which surely had the potential to inspire both budding microbiologists and nightmares during KrebsFest 2015. Top right is artist Kate Sully‘s excellent work for The Journey of Reproductive Life from the University of Sheffield’s 2016 Festival of the Mind. The 2018 Festival is already being planned, with the involvement of animators, musicians, visual and digital artists, dancers and performers. Below Sully’s art is the cover of the Journal of Imaginary Research, vol 2 (2017), with work on volume 3 starting in November 2017 for publication in early 2018. Bottom left is a beautiful representation of signal in the ovary created by Isam Sharum, Felicity Tournant and Sofia Granados-Aparici (Ovary Research Group, 2015) – one of several pieces of science-inspired art within the University of Sheffield and one which I get to admire every morning.

Art has a lot to offer the sciences. Of course, if one want to take the mercenary view, a collaboration with the arts would probably fit the parameters for an impact case for the Research Excellence Framework. But aside from the REF, art can be used to communicate science, to inspire curiosity, to guide our questions and to make a whole generation dream of jet packs and rocket ships.