Researchers from the University of Granada in Spain and Monash University in Australia recently compared the differences in functional connectivity between the “reward systems” of the brain in normal and obese individuals. They found that food cravings activate different neural networks and that the desire for food may actually be 'hard-wired' into the brain of overweight patients; essentially becoming a functional biomarker.
Obesity is a major health problem in numerous countries, including the United States, but most treatment efforts have remained relatively unsuccessful. This is due to many factors including our poor understanding of the brain-related mechanisms associated with overeating and obesity. Recently, studies are beginning to suggest that these mechanisms may be similar to those seen with substance dependence. This means that treatment methodologies might be more successful if approached in the same manner as alcohol or drug addiction.
To examine the effects of the desire for food in the brain, 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 cravings.
The MRI scans showed that in obese individuals the stimulus from food craving was associated with a relatively greater connectivity between components of the brain implicated in reward-based habits and the desire to eat high-calorie food items. The researchers measured the participants’ body mass index (BMI) three months following the scan and found that 11% of weight gain in the obese individuals could be predicted by the presence of the increased connectivity between the reward centers of the brain.
According to lead researcher, Oren Contreras-Rodríguez, "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. 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.”
The research team noted that the findings provided potential brain biomarkers which might be eventually used to help manage obesity through pharmacotherapies and brain stimulation techniques.
“Food cravings may actually be 'hard-wired' into the brain of overweight or obese people”