Acute stress enhances memory and preference for smoking-related associations in smokers

Lee, J.-H., Kang, S., Maier, S., Lee, S. A., Goldfarb, E., & Ahn, W.-Y. (in press). Nicotine & Tobacco Research


Nicotine dependence follows a chronic course that is characterized by repeated relapse, often driven by acute stress and rewarding memories of smoking retrieved from related contexts. These two triggers can also interact, with stress influencing retrieval of contextual memories. However, the roles of these processes in nicotine dependence remain unknown. In order to address this, we investigated how acute stress biases memory for smoking-associated contexts among smokers (N=65) using a novel laboratory paradigm. On Day 1, participants formed associations between visual stimuli of items (either neutral or related to smoking) and places (background scenes). On Day 2 (24 hours later), participants were exposed to an acute laboratory-based stressor (socially evaluated cold pressor test; N=32) or a matched control condition (N=33) prior to being tested on their memory recognition and preferences for each item and place. We distinguished the accuracy of memory into specific (i.e., precisely correct) or gist (i.e., lure items with similar content) categories. Results demonstrated that the stressor significantly induced physiological and subjective perceived stress responses, and that stressed smokers exhibited a memory bias in favor of smoking-related items. In addition, the stressed group displayed greater preference for both smoking-related items and places that had been paired with the smoking-related items. We also found suggestive evidence that stronger smoking-related memory biases were associated with more severe nicotine dependence (i.e., years of smoking). We believe these results highlight the role of stress in biasing smokers toward remembering contexts associated with smoking, and in amplifying their preference for these contexts. The current study elucidates the role of acute stress in promoting memory biases favoring smoking-related associations among smokers. The results suggest that the retrieval of smoking-biased associative memory could be a crucial factor in stress related nicotine seeking. This may lead to a potential intervention targeting the extinction of smoking-related context memories as a preventive strategy for stress-induced relapse.