Weight Loss Wednesday: Look inside the brain explains overeating


by Meg Farris / Eyewitness News mfarris@wwltv.com


Posted on January 25, 2011 at 5:48 PM

NEW ORLEANS - Do you ever find yourself wondering why you over eat when you know it's hurting your health and figure?

Ordo you ever wonder why someone who takes drugs or too much alcohol just won't stop even though it's hurting a career and family?

Alook inside of the brain could change the way you look at people who do just that.

Is this breakthrough science?

"It really is, it really is. It is a brand new concept and idea that obesity and drug abuse might have so many commonalties," said Dr. Patricia Molina, chairwomen of the Department of Physiology at LSU Health Sciences Center.

In late January,doctors and scientists from LSU Health Sciences Center gathered to hear a new discovery from the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dr. Nora Volkow was in Washington D.C. Scientists from several other institutes around theU.S. were listening too by live video teleconference.

"When dopamine goes up, something extraordinary happens. It's actually almost magical when you think about it," said Volkow, as she presents her research.

Volkow,rated by Newsweek,Time andU.S. News and World Report as one of the most influential people of our time, has discovered that what is going on in the brain, that makes certain people need to keep using drugs, is similar to what makes others need to keep over eating.

Dr. Patricia Molinawas at the video conference listening to the lecture.

"What the research has begun to show is what areas of the brain turn on when somebody sees an image of a Big Mac or an image of a huge Slurpee or a big order of fries," said Molina.

So here's what the research found.

First: Food and even more powerful drugsactive circuits in the brain that make us feel good, reward us and motivate us to keep doing the behavior. Nature's built in system to make sure we keep eating. Deprive yourself of food, the pleasure-reward circuit will be stimulated even more when you finally eat. Drugs, including nicotine,do the same thing in a more powerful way. But this seduction process is only the beginning.

Second: Once you get the high and have pleasurethat experience is memorized by your brain. So much so that even the environment where the drug or food experience happened makes your brain react, signaling you to eat or use.

"That's whyI say it's almost like science fiction," Volkow continued in her lecture.

Volkow said it's almost like science fiction because for drug users, just seeing video of the place where they use drugs, lights up the same pleasure area of the brain as taking the drugs. Think about how malignant that cue is to get that drug now.

And look how that relates to food.

"We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements for food. We are constantly being exposed to larger portions whatever restaurant we go to and now we are starting to understand the neurochemistry that is underlying these behaviors," Molina said.

Now here comes the third and final blow: In people who compulsively over eat or use drugs, the area of the brain that puts on the brakes to stop can not do it's job as well. Those brains can't grab and use as much of the pleasure chemical. In fact, in compulsive over eaters, smokers, drug and alcohol users and with age, the brain has fewer places for the pleasure chemical to lock on and do it's job. These are called receptors for thebrain chemical or neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Here's what so interesting, in animals, when the doctors temporarily added places or receptors in the brain to grab and use the pleasure chemical: they instantly and voluntarily wanted a lot less alcohol or drugs or food.

How do you fight biology when your brain is demanding that you over eat and rewards you for over eating and the person sitting next do you doesn't have that problem? How do you go against such powerful primal urges?

"It will probably lead to development of new medications," Molina said.

One medication being studied for weight loss is the one that blocks the brain from grabbing onto the powerful chemical in marijuana. It is approved in Mexico but not yet in theU.S.

So in the meantime, while scientists try to find the coveted pill for people whose brains drive them to over eat, Molina said find substitutes that can stimulate pleasure chemicals in the brain.

The first is exercise. While not as powerful as drugs or food,it produces pleasure chemicals in the brain for days and helps intensify pleasure from other activities. It even makes drug abusers use less.

Another way to stimulate the brain pleasure circuits, video games. As long as you keep them in check.

"China has a tremendous problem with children abusing, addicted to video games, absolutely, kids that will not eat, not go out of a room, refuse to go to school because they are so addicted to the video games," Molina said.

So something to think about while you exercise on your "Wii fit" to occupy your mind, just as we are born with completely different looking eyes, noses, mouths, and hair, now we know our brains are too.

Dr. Henri Roca, a family and integrative medicine expert at LSU Health Sciences Center saidif you have the genetic tendency to be addicted to food,it will always be a challenge to not over eat. But he says with hard work in a 12-step program like Overeaters Anonymous, it can be managed.

"That biological tendency, that genetic tendency will always be the case and you can't live without food, so it's always going to be a challenge.

It's not about being on your best behavior; it's about changing, so new behaviors that you choose are ones you enjoy and will do long term," Roca said.

"For those of us who have worked in the field, it's been very clear that you can be addicted to food, you can also be addicted to taste. But you can over come it, now that takes work, but yes, you can overcome it. Now there may be some people who are so severe that they will have difficulty overcoming it but we can usually chose to behave differently. Look at all the 12-step programs. All the 12-step programs are essentially mind, body, spiritual techniques to really help the person over come that, perhaps that, genetic predisposition,"Roca said.