Published on Fri Jul 23 2021

Not all smokers are alike: The hidden cost of sustained attention during nicotine abstinence

Deshpande, H. U., Fedota, J. R., Castillo, J., Salmeron, B. J., Ross, T. J., Stein, E. A.

Nicotine Withdrawal Syndrome (NWS)-associated cognitive deficits are heterogeneous. We identified smoker subgroups based on response accuracy during a cognitively demanding Parametric Flanker Task (PFT) We characterized their distinct neuroimaging endophenotypes using a nicotine state manipulation (sated, abstinent)

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Abstract

Background: Nicotine Withdrawal Syndrome (NWS)-associated cognitive deficits are heterogeneous, suggesting underlying endophenotypic subgroups. We identified smoker subgroups based on response accuracy during a cognitively demanding Parametric Flanker Task (PFT) and characterized their distinct neuroimaging endophenotypes using a nicotine state manipulation (sated, abstinent). Methods: Forty-five smokers completed the 25-min PFT in two fMRI sessions (nicotine sated, abstinent). Task-evoked NWS-associated errors of omission (EOm), brain activity, underlying functional connectivity (FC), and brain-behavior correlations between subgroups were assessed. Results: Based on their response accuracy in the high demand PFT condition, smokers split into high (HTP, n=21) and low task performer (LTP, n=24) subgroups. Behaviorally, HTPs showed greater response accuracy independent of nicotine state and greater vulnerability to abstinence-induced EOm. HTPs showed greater BOLD responses in attentional control brain regions for the [correct responses minus errors of commission] PFT contrast across states. A whole-brain FC analysis with these subgroup-derived regions as seeds revealed two circuits: L Precentral : R Insula and L Insula : R Occipital, with abstinence-induced FC strength increases only in HTPs. Finally, abstinence-induced brain (FC) and behavior (EOm) differences were positively correlated for HTPs in a L Precentral : R Orbitofrontal cortical circuit. Conclusion: We used a cognitive stressor (PFT) to fractionate smokers into two subgroups (HTP/LTP). Only the HTPs demonstrated sustained attention deficits during nicotine abstinence, a stressor in dependent smokers. Unpacking underlying smoker heterogeneity with this dual stressor approach revealed distinct smoker subgroups with differential attention deficit responses to withdrawal that could be novel targets for therapeutic interventions to improve cessation outcomes.