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Binge-eating

Research on binge-eating mice reveals obesity insights

Mice fed on a high fat or chocolate-based diet show abnormal feeding behaviours such as snacking, bingeing and disrupted eating patterns

Research teams led by Drs Mara Dierssen at Cedric Notredame (CRG) and Rafael Maldonado at Elena Martín-García (UPF) has discovered that mice offered the option of a high-fat 'cafeteria' diet or a mixture of chopped-up commercial chocolate bars alongside their regular lab chow, not only became obesity but also started very early to show the signs of addiction-like behaviour and binge-eating in response to these enticing foods. The results, ‘Time-course and dynamics of obesity-related behavioral changes induced by energy-dense foods in mice,’ were published in Addiction Biology.

"Our results revealed that long-term exposure to hypercaloric diets impair the ability to control eating behaviour leading to negative effects on the cognitive processes responsible for a rational control of food intake" said Maldonado, head of the Neuropharmacology Laboratory at UPF.

When the mice were offered chocolate for just one hour per day, the animals will compulsively 'binge', consuming as much chocolate in one hour as they would over a whole day if it was continually available. They also showed inflexible behaviours, similar to those seen in addiction, choosing to wait for chocolate while ignoring freely available standard chow. Yet, at the same time, the chocolate did not seem to satiate hunger as well as regular food.

The team found that animals on the high fat or chocolate diet also changed their daily routines. They were more likely to eat during the daytime - mice are usually nocturnal and feed at night - and they ate shorter more frequent 'snacks' rather than larger, longer-spaced meals.

A major problem in treating obesity is the high rate of relapse to abnormal food-taking habits after maintaining an energy balanced diet. The scientists evaluated this relapse and found that extended access to hypercaloric diets impairs the control of food seeking behaviour and has deleterious effects on learning, motivation and behavioural flexibility.

"Obesity is not just a metabolic disease - it is a behavioural issue. People who are overweight or obese are usually told to eat less and move more, but this is too simplistic." explained Mara Dierssen, group leader of the Cellular and Systems Neurobiology laboratory at CRG. "We need to look at the whole process. By understanding the behaviours that lead to obesity and spotting the tell-tale signs early, we could find therapies or treatments that stop people from becoming overweight in the first place. "It is very hard to lose weight successfully, and many people end up trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting.”

The scientists are now expanding their research to larger numbers of animals and they are also planning a study to look at addiction-like behaviours in obese people to see how well their results translate to humans.

"We need to focus on preventing obesity, and this study shows us that understanding and modifying behaviour could be the key," as Maldonado states "These studies reveal the major behavioural and cognitive changes promoted by hypercaloric food intake, which could be crucial for the repeated weight gain and the difficulties to an appropriate diet control."

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