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Cigarette cues capture smokers' attention: Evidence from event-related potentials


  • This work was supported in part by NIH Grant 1R01DA017073-01 to Paul Cinciripini. The authors thank Krystle Bartley, Paul Longoria, Kevin Mulpur, Cissette Muster, and Susana Torres for their help in data collection.

Address reprint requests to: Francesco Versace, U.T. M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Department of Behavioral Science—Unit 1330, PO Box 301439, Houston, TX 77030, USA. E-mail:


Before starting a smoking cessation treatment, 51 smokers took part in a study aimed at investigating brain mechanisms associated with attention allocation. Event-related potentials to acoustic startle probes were recorded from 129 sensors during the presentation of neutral, pleasant, unpleasant, and cigarette-related pictures. Results indicated that the amplitude of the startle probe P3 component was reduced for pleasant, unpleasant, and cigarette-related conditions relative to neutral. Surface Laplacian estimates showed that sources of electrocortical activity under frontal and parietal sensors contributed to the modulation of this effect. For smokers, cigarette-related stimuli, like intrinsically motivating ones, capture attentional resources and therefore reduce the ability to process competing stimuli. The depletion of attentional resources in the presence of cigarette-related cues may contribute to the high relapse rate observed during attempts to quit smoking.