Effects of cognitive load on neural and behavioral responses to smoking-cue distractors

R. Ross MacLean, Travis T. Nichols, James M. LeBreton, Stephen J. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Smoking cessation failures are frequently thought to reflect poor top-down regulatory control over behavior. Previous studies have suggested that smoking cues occupy limited working memory resources, an effect that may contribute to difficulty achieving abstinence. Few studies have evaluated the effects of cognitive load on the ability to actively maintain information in the face of distracting smoking cues. For the present study, we adapted an fMRI probed recall task under low and high cognitive load with three distractor conditions: control, neutral images, or smoking-related images. Consistent with a limited-resource model of cue reactivity, we predicted that the performance of daily smokers (n = 17) would be most impaired when high load was paired with smoking distractors. The results demonstrated a main effect of load, with decreased accuracy under high, as compared to low, cognitive load. Surprisingly, an interaction revealed that the effect of load was weakest in the smoking cue distractor condition. Along with this behavioral effect, we observed significantly greater activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus (rIFG) in the low-load condition than in the high-load condition for trials containing smoking cue distractors. Furthermore, load-related changes in rIFG activation partially mediated the effects of load on task accuracy in the smoking-cue distractor condition. These findings are discussed in the context of prevailing cognitive and cue reactivity theories. These results suggest that high cognitive load does not necessarily make smokers more susceptible to interference from smoking-related stimuli, and that elevated load may even have a buffering effect in the presence of smoking cues under certain conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)588-600
Number of pages13
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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