Why do so many teenagers start smoking, when adults all around them are trying so hard to quit? It’s not just because they’re rebellious and more easily fooled by advertising, it’s also because of the state of their developing brains.

Shaoni Bhattacharya writes in New Scientist that teens who start smoking are more likely to become hooked. They find it harder to quit later, so they’re more likely to become lifelong smokers (and develop health problems).

Researcher Edward Levin let teenage rats have as much nicotine as they wanted and found that female teen rats, who are equivalent to 14-year-old girls, use twice as much as adult rats that haven’t been exposed to nicotine before, and they keep on wanting more when they grow up. "The results indicate that early nicotine exposure can leave a lasting imprint on the brain," says Levin. "The brain continues to develop throughout the teenage years. Early nicotine use may cause the wiring of the brain to [develop] inappropriately."

During adolescence, areas involved in thinking, such as the frontal cortex and hippocampus, as well as the brain’s reward centers, become fine-tuned. When we’re infants, our brains are busy growing and making more synapses, but when we’re teenagers, the brain pares down and saves what it needs. Levin says, "If you sculpt the brain around addiction, you could make it much more permanent."

So how can we help teens to quit? Emily Singer writes in New Scientist that looking at flickering images helps stop cigarette cravings. Researcher Jon May has developed a program of black and white squares or dots that will fit on palm pilots and cell phones, to look at whenever a craving strikes. "Cravings start when we create a little picture in our mind of what we want," he says. "The images are what makes the cravings tantalizing. You can see in your head what you want, but you can’t have it. We tried to interfere with that process."

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