Could the long debated subject of what is termed ‘food addiction’ be real, like alcohol and drug addiction? And could this lead to obesity?
According to a new study, that is likely to be true. Conducted by a team of international researchers, the findings were presented at a recent neuroscience conference in Amsterdam. Employing brain imaging techniques, the researchers discovered that food cravings can lead to brain and behavioural changes in obese people, indicating that the tendency to over-eat may be ‘hardwired’ into the brains of overweight patients.
For this study, a total of 42 healthy- weight and 39 obese participants were provided with buffet-style food. They were then put into MRI brain scanners and shown photographs of high-calorie food to stimulate food craving. The researchers found that food craving was associated with different brain connectivity, depending on whether the individual was obese or of normal weight. Among normal weight individuals, the stimulus from food craving was linked with a greater connectivity between the ventral putamen and the orbito- frontal cortex of the brain. These parts of the brain, according to the researchers, are involved in flavour evaluation and are known to be linked with emotion and reward motivated decision-making. The researchers claim this indicates that normal weight participants usually consider how good the food tastes as well as evaluating factors like the nutrition value and their hunger levels when shown visuals of food.
In the case of obese participants, food craving was linked with greater connectivity between the dorsal caudate and the somatosensory cortex. The dorsal caudate processes reward-motivated behaviours and the somatosensory cortex assesses the food’s energy value. According to the researchers, the involvement of these two brain networks implies that for obese people it is difficult to turn down unhealthy food.
The lead researcher, Oren Contreras-Rodríguez states in a press release: ‘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.’