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Same area of brain affected as seen in drug-addiction studies

DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory : 11 May, 2007  (Technical Article)
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy
“These results could explain the deleterious effects of constant exposure to food stimuli, such as advertising, candy machines, food channels, and food displays in stores,” says Brookhaven physician Gene-Jack Wang, the study’s lead author. “The high sensitivity of this brain region to food stimuli, coupled with the huge number and variety of these stimuli in the environment, likely contributes to the epidemic of obesity in this country.”

Brookhaven scientists have conducted previous research showing that the right orbito-frontal cortex is involved in compulsive behaviors characteristic of addictive states, and that this brain region is activated when addicted individuals crave drugs such as cocaine. They have also shown that food stimulation, as done in this study, increases levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward, in the brain’s dorsal striatum. Additionally, to better understand the relationship of the dopamine system to obesity, they looked at the brain circuits of obese individuals and found that, like drug addicts, these individuals had fewer dopamine receptors than normal control subjects.

In the new study, the scientists looked at how 12 food-deprived, normal-weight study volunteers responded to their favorite foods by using positron emission tomography, a brain-scanning technique, to measure brain metabolism during food stimulation. Each volunteer was given an injection containing a radiotracer, a radioactive chemical “tag” designed to “light up” activated areas of the brain. The PET camera picks up the radioactive signal and measures the level and location of the tracer. Study subjects’ brains were scanned twice over a two-day period, with and without food stimulation. Subjects were asked not to eat for 17 to 19 hours prior to the study.

Volunteers were presented with foods that they had reported as their favorites on a pre-study questionnaire. The food was warmed to enhance its smell and the subjects were allowed to view and smell it, as well as taste a small portion placed on their tongues with a cotton swab. They were also asked to describe the foods as they tasted them. As a control, during scans when food stimulation was not used, subjects were asked to describe in great detail their family genealogy while they were presented with non-food related items. They were allowed to smell these items and they had a cotton swab dipped in water placed on their tongues to mimic the food-stimulation condition. Study participants were also instructed to describe, on a scale of 1 to 10, whether they felt hungry or desired food at the start of the study and at five-minute intervals for a total of 45 minutes.

The researchers found that food stimulation significantly increased whole brain metabolism. Metabolism was higher in all regions of the brain examined, except for the occipital cortex, which controls vision and would not be affected. The areas most affected were the superior temporal, anterior insula, and orbitofrontal cortices. Food stimulation also resulted in increases in self-reports of hunger and desire for food. Increases in metabolism in the right orbitofrontal cortex were the ones that were most significantly correlated with increased reports of hunger.
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