Brain Chemistry Plays Role in Food Cues

The makeup of a person's brain chemistry could play a role in their environmental food cues, according to the results of a new study.

The makeup of a person’s brain chemistry could play a role in their environmental food cues, according to the results of a new study.

The results, published in Molecular Psychiatry, show that obese people may be more susceptible than skinnier people which can ultimately further contribute to their health issues. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults in the US are obese, which increases their risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

As part of the study, the National Institutes of Health worked with a pool of 43 participants. A statement from the authors noted that the obese participants “tended to have greater dopamine activity in the habit-forming region of the brain than lean counterparts, and less activity in the region controlling reward.”

Looking at the data, the authors said the food triggers people experience on a daily basis would be heightened in heavier people, making them more prone to overeat. Those triggers, they noted, can include anything from the “the smell of popcorn at a movie, or a commercial for a favorite food.”

“While we cannot say whether obesity is a cause or an effect of these patterns of dopamine activity, eating based on unconscious habits rather than conscious choices could make it harder to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, especially when appetizing food cues are practically everywhere,” noted lead author Kevin D. Hall, PhD, who also works as a senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Study participants were asked to follow the same schedules for eating, sleeping, and daily activity and were given a questionnaire to determine their individualized experiences. They were also given positron emission tomography scans to check dopamine activity.

“These findings point to the complexity of obesity and contribute to our understanding of how people with varying amounts of body fat process information about food,” noted NIDDK Director Griffin P. Rodgers, MD. “Accounting for differences in brain activity and related behaviors has the potential to inform the design of effective weight-loss programs.”

While not able to make a connection between causes and effects the authors said future studies will need to be done to examine dopamine activity during changes in their lives including diets and physical activity.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health of which the NIDDK is a component.