Researchers have identified a specific circuit in the brain that alters food impulsivity, creating the possibility scientists can someday develop treatment to address the problem of overeating.
Impulsivity, or responding without thinking about the consequences of an action, has been linked to excessive food intake, binge eating, weight gain and obesity, along with several psychiatric disorders including drug addiction and excessive gambling.
"There’s underlying physiology in your brain that is regulating your capacity to say no to (impulsive eating)," said study lead author Emily Noble, Assistant Professor at University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"In experimental models, you can activate that circuitry and get a specific behavioural response," Noble said.
Using a rat model, researchers focused on a subset of brain cells that produce a type of transmitter in the hypothalamus called melanin concentrating hormone (MCH).
While previous research has shown that elevating MCH levels in the brain can increase food intake, this study is the first to show that MCH also plays a role in impulsive behaviour, Noble said.
"We found that when we activate the cells in the brain that produce MCH, animals become more impulsive in their behaviour around food," Noble said.
"Activating this specific pathway of MCH neurons increased impulsive behaviour without affecting normal eating for caloric need or motivation to consume delicious food," Noble said.
"Understanding that this circuit, which selectively affects food impulsivity, exists opens the door to the possibility that one day we might be able to develop therapeutics for overeating that help people stick to a diet without reducing normal appetite or making delicious foods less delicious," she added.
The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.