Monday, July 26, 2010

Your brain on drugs. Errr. I meant food.

As referenced in an earlier post, I had the opportunity to attend the recent International Congress on Obesity in Stockholm, Sweden a couple of weeks ago.  There was some research shown that demonstrates what our brains looks like when we're hungry.  It's a fascinating new angle on understanding obesity that uses the technology of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI's).  Said differently:  brain scans with cool colors that show neural activity as it is actually happening.

Researchers have used this technology to attempt to better understand the parts of the brains that get activated by different systems and pathways.  Some researchers now theorize that there are two pathways that show how brain activity relates to feelings of hunger:

  1. Homeostatic:  this is basically the control mechanism our bodies use to manage our energy balance. They largely rely on hormones to either stimulate or suppress hunger depending on whether we have excess energy stores (i.e., have eaten enough).  Leptin levels are elevated to suppress hunger while grehlin levels are elevated when we need food.  Said differently, this system was designed to help us figure out when we need food or not.  It is not to say that the system works perfectly in guiding people to their swimsuit-fantasy selves, but it generally works on some level.  
  2. Hedonic:  appropriately named, the hedonic system is theorized to stimulate people to consume "highly palatable" foods (and drugs) through dopamine release through something called the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.  Basically, when you see a picture of chocolate cake your brain goes fuzzy.  And you eat.  Or you really want to eat.  Badly.  
Recently, there has been research done that demonstrates that the hedonic system goes into overdrive for people who struggle with their weight vs. people who don't.  Apparently, those of us who are challenged with excessive food intake (like me) have brains that light up like a Christmas tree when we see something yummy.  Apparently, the naturally thin do not have this neural-fireworks display to nearly the same degree.  

Interesting, there has also been research that seems to indicate that those who have lost weight and kept it off have a different part of our brains that also lights up when we see something yummy.  It is basically, the part of the brain (the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex in case you were wondering) that helps us regulate against our impulsive behaviors.  A friend of mine asked me if such a part of the brain could be implanted or purchased.  Presuming that medical technology for this kind of quick fix does not yet exist, it sounds like the way to get this part of the brain activated may be more like developing a new muscle, presumably through practice and training.  

So what's my professional take on all of the above?  fMRI is a hot new area in obesity research that holds a lot of interesting long term promise.  It's still new technology (as it relates to obesity), and the brain is a complicated piece of equipment.  As a result, curiosity into these studies is definitely warranted, but a wait-and-see scientific patience is as well.  It's very new stuff.  

So what's my personal take on all of the above?  I totally relate to these theories.  My brain totally gets fuzzy when I see my favorite trigger foods.  I cannot look at a muffin without my heart skipping a beat and my head getting a weird buzzing sensation.  To be clear, I haven't had a muffin in years, and I still have a frenzied response when I see one.  

At the same time, I seem to have gotten pretty adept at not eating said muffin.  Therefore, it's possible that my self-restraint brain biceps have gotten at least a little bit toned.  That said, if I were locked in a closet with a blueberry muffin for a day, I would surely eat it.  So I cannot rely on my restraint muscle completely.  I also need to keep myself out of harms way by avoiding being around those foods that make my brain-heart go pitter-pat.  

It's all common sense stuff, but it's interesting to see how it's correlated to neuroscience.  Does that mean it's not brain surgery?  Let's hope surgery isn't required.  

How do  you manage your own dopamine pathways to keep yourself from spiraling into a food frenzy?




  1. A lot of research is out there that suggests when our brains are "weak" in a particular area, we can exercise the brain to improve those regions. For example, the theory behind IQ games and "Brain Age" for DS will increase your synapsises in the cognitive & memorie potions of your brain.

    So, it sounds like by your post that those who have lost considerable weight and kept it off, may have actually practiced the discipline of self-control and physically that area of the brain functions higher with time. If that is true, then the conclusion can be made that with practice, resisting those trigger foods will get easier. Do you agree?

  2. Thank you for that info, interesting!I can't believe you haven't had a muffin in years! Ohhhh bummer, I have a WW blueberry recipe, & the fiber~one blueberry muffins are yummy!!! Ohhhh your missing out! For the first time in my life, I'm learning how to eat right & excercise, just having balance in my life!!! WW is the best program out there, & i lOve my Wed evening class, we all have 1 thing in common, were fOOd addicts & we need to learn how to control how much fOOd we put in our mouths ;~)Since we are emotional creatures it can trigger food impulsives, but WW helps with that!!!
    Anyway thanks for the info, & keep up the Grrreat work!!!
    ~Victoria ShOOk~

  3. Hey, if you know where I can buy a used dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex at a good price, please let me know! :-D I have been a Lifetime member since 2004, and I am constantly battling my sugary/fatty/salty cravings…and once I start giving in regularly, this leads to a downward (or upward, rather) spiral.

    Also, I am a regular blogger on the WW site, and wanted to mention that I have been unable to post on my blog for several days, because I keep getting a “page not found” error message when I try to post. Despite several requests to customer service, I have not received any assistance with this problem other than the standard “clear your cookies”. I have to say that I am very disappointed with the lack of customer service. I’m sure that you would be frustrated if you found yourself suddenly unable to post on Blogspot. :-( Any assistance that you could provide would be appreciated!

    Kimberly (lunatekke2 on the WW site)

  4. WOW thank you for this it was very interesting.
    I now understand my cravings. I would love to have you as a follower on my blog.

    I am fight kidney disease and if I don't lose 90 pounds soon I could go into renal failure or even die like my mother did. I was told there is no cure but health if I lose the weight my might be able to prolong my life even live to be very old. Although I know the clock is ticking and I am desperate for help. I started writing a book to help other people going through the same. I already talk at conferences to 150 people or more about marketing and design. So I feel good I can motivate others at meetings about health once I win this battle. Anyway I hope you will stop by and follow me as my Google Friend. I LOVE your blog!

  5. Thanks for siting this through WW. I read about this a few weeks ago and as a WW Leader wanted to mention it as I see it in myself and my members.

    Now, if only we could continue to help more members persevere and not be so hard on themselves so that muscle does get developed and they do find lasting success. We are such a "quick fix" culture.

    Thanks again!

  6. Thank you for shedding some scientific light on my (almost) lifetime battle with my weight.

    For me, what works best is to try to eat the same point values (if not the same actual food) for breakfast and lunch. The remaining lion's share of points are then applied to midday snacks, dinner and dessert. The foods that I eat are generally high fiber (filling), and protein (satisfying), which include a healthy mix of organic fruits and veggies, plus fish and chicken.

    My problems lie in wait for me when I eat in an unstructured setting such as a party where there are lots of yummy appetizers (junk) and luscious desserts. It's the equivalent of putting a young child in a toy store and saying, "It's all yours!". The only thing that works for me under those conditions is to physically absent myself from wherever the offending culprits are placed.

    I've maintained a 40 pound loss for 4 months. I hope to lose 10 more with an ultimate goal of maintaining that weight. It's certainly not always easy, but it's worth it.

    I'm going to Europe soon. Any suggestions?

  7. David, thank you for sharing that information! It makes this food battling thing more clear for me. Eating the recommended protein and fiber foods (veggies and fruit, grains) helps me to steer clear of the foods that light up my own brain! Not having them around as an option (I've learned it all the hard way!)also helps me to stay better focused. I still struggle at work when the donuts and pizza come around, but I find that my persistance and determination to get these last 12 pounds off to goal (lost 123)and going to the meetings weekly (if not 2x/week) really help! I really enjoy reading your blogs! Keep up the great work!

  8. i don't manage very well at all, lol. working on it though.

  9. I realized that WW is in the business to make money and PRODUCT makes the money---not the paltry monthly stipends. But as a CEO of a corporation in the business of helping folks lose weight, don't you ever feel a little bit icky selling boxes of smoothies, cheese crackers, frozen foods loaded with sugar & carbs, etc? A little, maybe? If you dropped the food lines, you could sell bikes, snorkels, ellipticals et al!

  10. I am pretty sure Saltines were invented to target those hedonic pathways. I like the image of building "brain muscle" in this regard. One stragtegy I employ is finding a treat that will "close" that hedonic pathway that is not unhealthy - a really juicy orange or a mug of hot coco. Sometimes it takes a lot of creativity, but there is almost always a better points-friendlier alternative to the sugary snack... or the Saltines.