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Food craving

Food addiction - craving may be hard-wired in the brain

The mechanisms associated with the desire to eat are poorly understood, although recent studies are beginning to suggest that the brain mechanisms underlying obesity may be similar to those in substance addiction

An international group of researchers have found that food craving activates different brain networks between obese and normal weight patients, indicating that the tendency to want food may be 'hard-wired' into the brain of overweight patients, becoming a functional brain biomarker. The mechanisms associated with the desire to eat are poorly understood, although recent studies are beginning to suggest that the brain mechanisms underlying obesity may be similar to those in substance addiction, and that treatment methodologies may be approached in the same way as other substance addictions, such as alcohol or drug addiction.

"There is an ongoing controversy over whether obesity can be called a ‘food addiction’, but in fact there is very little research which shows whether or not this might be true,” said lead researcher, Oren Contreras-Rodríguez from Bellvitge Hospital, Bellvitge, Spain. “The findings in our study support the idea that the reward processing following food stimuli in obesity is associated with neural changes similar to those found in substance addiction. This still needs to be viewed as an association between food craving behaviour and brain changes, rather than one necessarily causing the other. However, these findings provide potential brain biomarkers which we can use to help manage obesity, for example through pharmacotherapies and brain stimulation techniques that might help control food intake in clinical situations."

Presenting their paper, ‘Brain correlates of the desire to food predict body mass index change in excess weight adults’, at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology's annual conference in Amsterdam, the researchers from the University of Granada, Spain, and Monash University in Australia, looked for the functional connectivity differences in brain reward systems of normal-weight and obese individuals. In particular, it examined the association between the functional connectivity of the reward-based striatal brain networks during rest and the desire to high calorie food in excess relative to normal weight individuals, and whether such brain correlates predict weight increases in the excess weight individuals.

The study involved 81 participants (participants with overweight/ obesity = 39; normal-weight participants = 42) aged 33.34 years (46.9% women). Ventral and dorsal striatal connectivity were investigated using a validated seed-based multiple regression method. The resulting connectivity maps were compared between the study groups using two-sample models. Moreover, connectivity maps were explored in relation with the desire to consume high-calorie food-items, previously tasted in a previous buffet, and BMI change after a three-months diet using correlation and regression analyses, respectively.

The researchers gave buffet-style food to 39 obese and 42 normal-weight individuals. Later, they were put into functional MRI brain scanners and shown photographs of the food to stimulate food craving. The functional MRI scans showed that food craving was associated with different brain connectivity, depending on whether the subject was normal-weight or overweight.

They found that in obese individuals, the stimulus from food craving was associated with a greater connectivity between the dorsal caudate and the somatosensory cortex, implicated in reward-based habits and the coding of the energetic value of foods, respectively. However, with normal weight individuals, food craving was associated with a greater connectivity between different parts of the brain - between the ventral putamen and the orbitofrontal cortex.

The researchers then measured BMI three months afterwards and found that 11% of the weight gain in the obese individuals could be predicted by the presence of the increased connectivity between the dorsal caudate and the somatosensory cortex areas of the brain.

The researchers say the findings may point the way to using brain scans to diagnose the way some people respond to food, and new drug or brain stimulation treatments for obesity.

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