Scientists have recently found a better way to explain how addiction to smoking affects the brain—this time, through analyzing one of the most common substitute to it: Vaping. Researchers from the Imperial College of London have been taking functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of people while they puff on e-cigarettes and comparing the data to self-proclaimed tobacco smoking addicts.

In a small pilot study, the researchers used electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, to mimic the behavioral aspects of smoking tobacco cigarettes, and say future studies could help scientists understand why smoking is so addictive. This is giving the researchers an unprecedented look in to how the addiction of smoking truly works.

During the recent years, vape or e-cigarettes have gained a lot of popularity as a healthier and better alternative to traditional smoking. Because of its other unique and innovative features as well, many smokers decided to shift and transition.

Contrary to the belief of others, vape still has nicotine too. E-cigarettes use battery-powered cartridges to produce a nicotine-laced vapor to inhale. Nicotine is the culprit why many people got hooked on smoking for it is a highly addictive substance.

Many also view vaping as their transition to quitting, and more and more people can stand witness that it is one effective method. However, if it is just nicotine that drives the addiction of smoking, why are e-cigarettes more successful in smoking cessation than other nicotine replacement therapies like gums and patches.

Matt Wall, one of the leading scientists in this area of study, have conducted an experiment using e-cigarettes in connection to understand of the science of smoking addiction. “There’s something unique about the drug [nicotine] and the delivery system — the smoking — combined which makes it really, really addictive,” Wall said.

The main focus of their study is to observe the brain while it inhales smoke or vapor. They have analyzed what parts of the brain respond to the actions of smoking, or in this study, vaping. Walls call it the “behavioral and sensory repertoire of smoking.” 

Before e-cigarettes became a thing, it was impossible to monitor the effects of smoking traditional cigarettes as the smoke was too dangerous to have in the confined space of an MRI machine. On the other hand, electronic cigarettes produce water vapor and are not combustible. This opened an opportunity for the researchers to record this brain activity right as the user was vaping, giving them a new view into the addiction of smoking.

“E-cigarettes provide a very good simulation of traditional smoking [and] we have shown that using e-cigarettes with fMRI is an excellent paradigm for direct evaluation of the effects of smoking on human neurophysiology,” Walls said.  

To date, the study is still of too small a sample set to make any true determinations. Regardless, the information they gathered from the fMRIs showed activity in areas of the brain that are linked to the reward and addiction sectors of the brain, as well as in the perception of taste and smell.

Regardless of this advancement, many people still critic the promises of e-cigarettes. Some even point out that because of advertising its ‘healthier’ components and benefits compared to traditional tobacco smoking, many teens and young adolescents are braver to explore this new phenomenon. According to them, this way of thinking is dangerous as it stunts the ability of e-cigarettes to grow and be used as cessation tools.

However, these group of researchers will continue with their study and in fact, conduct it on a much larger scale to gather more impressive and relevant results.