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Friday, February 6, 2015

Targeting Neural Circuits for Overeating

A problem that affects many Americans and is one of the hardest forms of addiction to treat is eating disorders. When most people think of eating disorders, malnourished young women come to mind. However, there are two sides of the eating disorder coin, that of overeating - for which more and more Americans are seeking treatment.

New research suggests that targeting a reward-related neural circuit that specifically controls compulsive sugar consumption may help researchers develop a safe and effective treatment for compulsive overeating, Science Daily reports. Treating compulsive overeating a type of reward-seeking behavior is especially difficult because, unlike drug addiction, humans need food to survive. If not treated carefully, treatments face the risk of impairing normal feeding behaviors.

"Although obesity and Type 2 diabetes are major problems in our society, many treatments do not tackle the primary cause: unhealthy eating habits," says senior study author Kay Tye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Our findings are exciting because they raise the possibility that we could develop a treatment that selectively curbs compulsive overeating without altering healthy eating behavior."

Our brain circuits evolved to support binging on rare, sugary foods whenever possible during certain seasons, due to their valuable source of energy, according to the article. When winter comes, separate neural circuits may drive us to eat whatever is available, but to consume less overall to ration out limited resources.

"However, in our modern day society, there is no scarcity of palatable foods, and high-sugar or high-fat foods are often even more available than fresh produce or proteins," Tye says. "We have not yet adapted to a world where there is an overabundance of sugar, so these circuits that drive us to stuff ourselves with sweets are now serving to create a new health problem. The discovery of a specific neural circuit underlying compulsive sugar consumption could pave the way for the development of targeted drug therapies to effectively treat this widespread problem."

The findings were published in the journal Cell.

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