Study highlights how smoking affects the brain


A RECENT study by the University of Edinburgh has uncovered new findings which show the effects smoking has on the brain.


The study shows that people who smoke have a thinner outer cortex of the brain- the layer associated with memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought and language.


Researchers also found that people who avoided smoking had a thicker outer layer of the brain than people who had smoked.


Researchers say the study will help them understand how smoking affects the brain in later life


Those participants who had given up smoking for the longest time had a thicker cortex compared with those who had given up recently – even after accounting for the total amount smoked in their lifetime.


The study- carried out by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University- gathered health data and analysed MRI scans of 244 males and 260 females with an average age of 73. Around half were former or current smokers.


The group tested were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, a group of individuals who were born in 1936 and took part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947.


Using detailed MRI brain scans, careful image analysis and statistical models, researchers analysed how a person’s smoking habit was linked with the thickness of the brain’s cortex


The study authors suggest that avoiding smoking helps to keep the brain’s cortex thicker so therefore more normal. They also cautiously suggest that the cortex might regain some thickness once smokers quit, but that this was not seen in all regions of the brain.


Professor Ian Deary, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research project, said: “It is important to know what is associated with brain health in older age. From these data we have found a small link between smoking and having thinner brain grey matter in some regions.


“There are findings in our study that could suggest that stopping smoking might allow the brain’s cortex to recover some of its thickness, though we need further studies conducted with repeat measures to test that idea.”


Professor Joanna Wardlaw, Director of the Brain Research Imaging Centre at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The effects of smoking on the lungs and heart are well known, but our study shows that there are important effects on the brain as well, another good reason for not smoking”.


Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research at Age UK, said: “Understanding how and why our thinking skills change with age is a major current health challenge. This work helps us to understand how smoking affects the brain in later life. The more we can find out about what influences our thinking skills as we age, the better the advice that we can give people on protecting their cognitive health.”