University of Illinois at Chicago Office of Public Affairs (MC 288)
601 S. Morgan St., Chicago, IL 60607-7113, (312) 996-3456,


August 10, 1999 Contact: Jody Oesterreicher (312)996-8277,


Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are testing a novel approach to help cigarette smokers overcome the distress that they feel when trying to quit smoking. The researchers give participants a combination of foods that deplete the brain chemical serotonin to induce a depressive mental state that mimics the state smokers experience when they quit.

UIC researchers have found that many smokers who are trying to quit experience symptoms of depression such as irritability, stress and distress, and that these people often start smoking because of these moods.

"The question became 'what if we could give smokers a taste of what they are likely to experience when they quit and walk them through the skills they will need to cope with these distressing thoughts, feelings and moods,'" said Bonnie Spring, professor of psychology and principal investigator of the research program known as Chicagoland Quit Smoking.

No matter how much preparation counselors provide smokers suffering from nicotine withdrawal, they are likely to feel a range of unpleasant emotions including despair, Spring said.

Research participants attend a morning workshop during which counselors teach techniques to help the smokers cope with the negative emotions that can accompany nicotine withdrawal. Among these techniques is one that the researchers call "attention control." Instead of encouraging the participants to try to manage their thoughts by continually checking distorted thoughts against reality, the UIC researchers teach them to focus on their breathing and let thoughts come and go.

"When you're going through nicotine withdrawal everything can seem like a catastrophe," said Spring. "If you try to manage these thoughts, you are in a way validating them. With the attention control technique, you don't dignify these thoughts by trying to manage them. You don't give them any more energy than they deserve."

The researchers give the smokers the serotonin-depleting foods during the morning workshop and in the afternoon let them test the skills that they have learned while experiencing a state similar to that induced by nicotine withdrawal. "It's a rehearsal," Spring said.

At the end of the session, participants receive a tryptophan-repleting meal, which restores their serotonin to normal levels. For the next few days, the researchers check up on the participants to make sure that their moods are stable, and then follow up with them for a month to find out whether they are making progress toward quitting.

Researchers already have piloted this new protocol with 75 smokers. They specifically are looking for smokers who become distressed when they try to quit. They are recruiting participants from late August through September.

Chicagoland Quit Smoking is a 20-year-old federally funded research program that offers a variety of free treatments. Programs include some that focus on smokers who are prone to depression and women smokers who fear weight gain. No matter what program smokers join, Chicagoland Quit smoking counselors tailor treatment to meet the specific needs of individual smokers.

Fifty percent of participants in the main research program, which uses psychological interventions alone, remain smoke-free after three months. The typical quit rate for most other group stop-smoking programs is 20 to 30 percent and the quit rate for nicotine replacement products such as chewing gum and patches is roughly 14 percent, Spring said. Studies show that smokers who try to quit on their own have a failure rate of about 95 percent.

Chicagoland Quit Smoking offers ongoing day and evening programs in the West Loop at UIC and the western suburbs at Hines Veterans Administration. Enrollment in clinical trials is open to all adult smokers interested in quitting. The eligibility criteria are broad. For information, the public can call (312) 355-2153.


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