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Brain Scans Could Lead to Better Anti-Smoking Ads

A new study that looked into the brains of smokers could lead to anti-smoking messages that could actually get smokers to quit.

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor put more than two dozen smokers in MRI machines and showed them anti-cigarette television ads.

Study leader Emily Falk found that activity in the brain's medial prefrontal cortex predicted less smoking in the weeks ahead.

"What is exciting," Falk said in statement, "is that by knowing what is going on in someone's brain during the ads, we can do twice as well at predicting their future behavior, compared to if we only knew their self-reported estimate of how successful they would be, or their intention to quit."

The findings, published in journal Health Psychology, suggest that further testing could be used to see which ads would be effective in getting people to stop smoking.

"These results bring us one step closer to the ability to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to select the messages that are most likely to affect behavior change both at the individual and population levels. It seems that our brain activity may provide information that introspection does not," Falk said.

A month after the scan, participants reported smoking an average of five cigarettes a day, compared with an average of 21 a day at the start of the study.

Interestingly, many of the ads that did not seem immediately relevant to participants at the time of the scan emerged as the most highly recalled during the month that people tried to quit smoking. "It is possible that the brain activity we are observing predicts behavior change that is not predicted by people's self-reports, because it is tapping into something that people aren't consciously aware of when they initially see the ads," said Falk.

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