Food Addiction and Brain Waves

A newly released study raises intriguing questions about the nature of food addiction. In particular those with an addiction to food display markedly different brain patterns to those who are regarded as healthy eaters. This study, along with similar findings, could lead to new, more effective treatments for those who struggle with over-eating.

In the August publication of Archives of General Psychiatry, Ashley Gerhardit a Doctoral student of Clinical Psychology at Yale University and her fellow students released the results of their research into food addiction which suggests that an overwhelming urge to eat is certainly a form of addiction. These findings reflect similar studies and the views of Nora Volkow, M.D, Head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse who said in 2007 that certain forms of obesity were due to food addiction.

The current research studied 48 healthy young women with an average age of 21 and who ranged in weight from slim to obese.  They were asked to complete a questionnaire that measures food addiction on the Yale Food Addiction Scale. They were asked to agree or disagree with a set of statements such as 'I continue to eat this food even though I am full up' or 'I sometimes eat this food even though its making me feel physically ill'.

It was found that when subjects were shown pictures of certain foods and then promised the real thing their brain activity, analysed using an MRI scanner, of those who came out of the questionnaire with the highest food addiction scored showed very different brain patterns than those who scored low in the questionnaire. There was significantly more brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the amygdala and the caudate. These areas of the brain are known to be overactive in individuals craving drugs. All the participants in the study who were thought to have healthy eating habits did not fall into any eating disorder categories.

Another interesting note to take away from this study was that the weight of the person didn't necessarily reflect the score they achieved on the food addiction questionnaire. Many of those who exhibited extra brain activity and produced the highest scores were slim while obese subjects often scored low. Addiction to food therefore cannot be assessed by weight alone, overweight individuals may be overweight for a number of reasons.   It should be noted that the test subjects for the study were all of a relatively young age; it may be that subjects found to be food addicted could well struggle with weight gain later in life.

It is certainly an interesting finding and, as Gerhardit said, “I think our research suggests that clinical techniques used in addiction such as motivational interviewing or cue-exposure response-prevention may be particularly effective for some people struggling with eating-related issues. It also highlights the impact that addictive foods may have on the reward system in the brain, which could suggest the use of pharmacology, like opioid antagonists, to treat eating problems.”

If larger studies show similar results this could prove to be a breakthrough in food addiction and its treatment because up until this point there was not a definitive way of identifying those who were addicted. This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. As always I will be following this story with interest and reporting back any findings as and when they occur.

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