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



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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The research described in this article was funded, in part, by a grant from Philip Morris USA under UCLA contract 20063287. Additional funding was provided by an endowment from the Thomas P. and Katherine K. Pike, Chair in Addiction Studies, and a gift from the Marjorie M. Greene Trust. M Kohno was supported by an institutional training grant, T32 DA024635. All experimental procedures comply with current laws of the United States of America.

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Correspondence to Edythe D. London.

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Adriana Galván and Tom Schonberg contributed equally to this work.

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Galván, A., Schonberg, T., Mumford, J. et al. Greater risk sensitivity of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in young smokers than in nonsmokers. Psychopharmacology 229, 345–355 (2013).

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