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Everyone who has ever tried knows that quitting smoking is hard. Why is that, though, and how could it be made easier? A new study reveals some amazing insights into the way nicotine addiction works in the brain.

Smoking is no longer cool. Gone is the outrageous claim that smoking cures asthma. Gone is, in most places across the developed world, the freedom to smoke in public places or even in your own car. Gone is the Malboro man.

Back in 1965, 42.4 percent of the US adult population smoked cigarettes. Since then, smoking rates have gradually but steadily been declining, with "only" 16.8 percent of adult United States residents still smoking in 2014.

Restrictions on cigarette advertising, health warnings on packets, rising prices, public awareness campaigns on the dangers of cigarettes, and programs that help people quit have all contributed to the fact that not even 17 in 100 US adults smoke any more. Most of all, though, the deep knowledge that smoking kills has penetrated all levels of society now, and it's impossible to be a smoker and not be aware that the clock is ticking on you

It's certainly easier to prevent people from ever starting smoking than it is to get them to quit, however — even those who badly want to quit, who know that beating their addiction could save their life as well as an awful lot of money, have a terribly hard time achieving success. Only between four and seven percent of those people who attempt to quit smoking without medication or help succeed during any given attempt, not because they aren't determined enough, but because smoking is an addiction, a serious addiction. 

Why Is It So Hard To Quit Smoking?

Smokers will say that lighting up a cigarette instantly makes them feel less stressed, less anxious, and less irritated. Not being able to have a smoke when they want one, on the other hand, causes restlessness, grumpiness, and craving in addicts. Until they get that cigarette, the smoker may think of little else.

That's what addiction will do to you — it's not that cigarettes make you feel good, it's that once you get accustomed to nicotine, you will feel bad if you don't get it. 

That's the easy part. If you want to understand why this happens, things get a little more technical. New research has focused on a previously little-known area of the brain called the habenula. Playing an important role in the release of both serotonin and dopamine, the habenula is crucial to understanding how addiction, and reward conditioning in general, really works.

The habenula's full role is still being investigated, but so far it is clear that it helps us learn from experience on a chemical level — pushing us to seek out enjoyable experiences again while making us avoid a repeat of unpleasant ones. 

Besides serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that you've probably never heard of — acetylcholine and glutamate — are also deeply involved in the processes going on in the habenula.

According a recently released study published in the journal eLife: "Alterations in the balance of neurotransmitters influence our capacity to cope with addiction, depression and, in the most pronounced cases, can contribute to psychiatric disorders. The studies presented here reveal that [acetylcholine] production at MHb-IPN synapses is essential for the establishment of nicotine dependence, and that local ACh action plays an important role in withdrawal responses."

What does that mean, and how could it help you if you are a smoker who would really like to quit but can't seem to manage?
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