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Regular text messaging could help smokers quit

In two related studies, researchers find that text messaging could be an ideal means of delivering momentary interventions in the lives of smokers trying to quit.

A group of researchers who describe kicking a habit as "a war that consists of a series of momentary self-control skirmishes" have found a link between texting and controlling cravings among a group of 27 heavy smokers in Los Angeles who participated in two related studies.

In the first study, the findings of which are reported this month in the journal Psychological Science, the smokers performed a basic self-control task while three regions of their brains most involved in impulse control were scanned using fMRI. They then described their cravings and smoking patterns, and their urine and lungs were tested to determine their physical addiction levels.

In the second study, whose findings are reported in the journal Health Psychology, the participants underwent a three-week smoking cessation program, during which each smoker received eight text messages a day to monitor cravings, moods, and actual cigarette use.

Using data from both studies, researchers at the University of Oregon, the University of Michigan, and UCLA confirmed previous findings that regular-interval monitoring of cravings--via texting or the use of other handheld devices--helps get rid of memory biases (i.e., remembering something being more difficult or more rewarding than it actually was) that occur when cravings and use are reported only once a day.

They also found that when it comes to the "brief interval assessment" of people trying to quit, text messaging is at least as effective as using the type of palmtop devices that are more commonly employed in cessation programs--which is handy given that texting tends to be less expensive, easier to use, and more immediate.

"Text messaging may be an ideal delivery mechanism for tailored interventions because it is low-cost, most people already possess the existing hardware, and the messages can be delivered near-instantaneously into real-world situations," the authors report.

Finally, the researchers found that fMRI imaging can help predict an individual's ability to suppress cravings, as the smokers with the most brain activity in impulse-control regions were most likely to resist cravings as documented by the texts.

The researchers note that these findings may make it possible to tailor cessation programs to individuals based on their abilities to inhibit responses to cravings. Whether monitoring by text will soon be a mainstay of cessation programs remains to be seen, but research already links one's likelihood of quitting smoking to the smoking habits of one's social network.