Sensation seekers may be at increased risk for becoming smokers due to greater initial sensitivity to nicotine

November 18, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The personality characteristic of sensation seeking (the tendency to seek varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences) is associated with a greater risk of smoking, and a new study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) provides evidence that this may be due to greater initial sensitivity to nicotine.

The study in the November issue of Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology found that those scoring high on sensation seeking personality measures were more sensitized to nicotine's mood altering influences when the nicotine dose was at the lower level tested (10 ug/kg). This dose mimics the level of nicotine likely obtained by teens experimenting with smoking. If similar results are seen with teenagers during early tobacco experimentation, say the authors, interventions focused on teens high in sensation seeking traits may help with smoking prevention efforts.

In the study, psychologist Kenneth A. Perkins, Ph.D., and other researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh assessed the subjective responses (mood states and physical feelings like "relaxed" and "jittery") and cardiovascular responses (heart rate and blood pressure) of 37 young adult nonsmokers (ages 21 - 40) after using a nasal nicotine spray at different doses (0, 10 and 20 ug/kg) on three separate occasions. Nonsmokers were used to avoid the effect of chronic tolerance through long-term exposure to nicotine from smoking. A group of 55 smokers was also included in the study to determine whether sensation seeking was associated specifically with initial sensitivity to nicotine.

The researchers found greater responses to nicotine's subjective effects in nonsmokers who had higher sensation seeking personality scores. The results, say the authors, are very similar to findings of other studies involving d-amphetamines and suggests that "the increase in sensitivity to drugs due to sensation seeking may be broad and not specific to nicotine."

Very few relationships were found between sensation seeking and subjective responses to nicotine in smokers, which provides evidence that this personality type is related to initial, and not general, sensitivity to nicotine.

As expected, the researchers did not find a significant association between sensation seeking and heart rate and blood pressure responses to nicotine in nonsmokers. This suggests, say the authors, "that this personality characteristic is not related to all nicotine responses but may be specifically associated with mood altering experiences and other effects that may be relevant to nicotine reinforcement."
Article: "Greater Sensitivity to Subjective Effects of Nicotine in Nonsmokers High in Sensation Seeking," Kenneth A. Perkins, Ph.D., Debra Gerlach, Michelle Broge and James E. Grobe, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Annette Wilson, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh; Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, Vol. 8, No. 4.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at

Lead author Kenneth A. Perkins, Ph.D., can be reached at (412) 624-1716 or by e-mail at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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