Everyone has a food weakness. Whether it's being unable to resist the rustle of a chip bag or the waft of a Brie wedge, or catching sight of a pizza flyer and speed-dialing your local dealer—sorry, takeout place—some foods are impossible to say no to.
If you're despairing at your fast-depleting bank balance (when you're asking about the pizza delivery guy's mom, things might be getting a bit out of hand) or being berated by friends for hoovering up their share of the cheeseboard, help may be at hand. New research from Johns Hopkins University has found that suppressing certain neurons in rats' brains makes them less likely to seek out the sugary rewards on which they had previously binged. And it could have implications for human behavior, too.
Published last week in the science journal Neuron, the research centered on neurons "in a largely unstudied region of the brain" and found that they were "deeply connected to the tendency to overindulge in response to external triggers, a problem faced by people addicted to food, alcohol, and drugs."
Jocelyn Richard, lead author in the study and post-doctoral fellow in psychology and neurosciences, explained in a press statement that "external cues—anything from a glimpse of powder that looks like cocaine or the jingle of an ice cream truck—can trigger a relapse or binge eating. Our findings show where in the brain this connection between environmental stimuli and the seeking of food or drugs is occurring."
Damn that catchy tune, making us weak at the knees for a Mr. Whippy hit.
The study saw Richard and her team train rats to realize that they would receive a drink of sugary water when a siren or beeping sounded and they pushed a lever. As the rats performed the tasks, the researchers monitored neurons in the ventral pallidum, a structure near the base of the brain.
Richard noted that when the rats heard the cue, the neurons reacted strongly and the rodents were quicker to go for the sugar water. She added in the press statement: "We were surprised to see such a high number of neurons showing such a big increase in activity as soon as the sound played."
Similar to the happy hour bell ringing, then.
However, when researchers used a biological technique known as optogenetics to temporarily dull the rats' neurons, they found that "the rats were less likely to pull the sugar lever," and "when they did pull it, they were much slower to do so."
And this could be the key to suppressing addictive behaviors in humans.
Previous studies have looked into what makes processed foods so addictive (basically: fat, good; sugar, good; salt, gooood), as well as the Pavlovian effects food and drink has on both rats and humans. A recent study from Concordia University in Canada examined visual prompts and alcohol consumption in rats, with the aim of identifying the cues that may cause alcoholism in humans.
Although the Johns Hopkins University findings are limited to rats, Richard told MUNCHIES that she hopes it could help us basic beings too: "Understanding where in the brain external triggers in the environment are able to drive and intensify wanting for food and drugs is an important step in developing new treatment strategies. It may also help us to understand why certain individuals are more vulnerable to the magnetic properties of sights and sounds that are associated with junk food and drugs."
But she warns that there's still work to do in this area of research, meaning such treatment strategies wouldn't affect regular appetite: "It's important that we understand the brain circuits involved in more detail so that we can target exaggerated wanting and craving for substances, while sparing normal levels of food consumption."
In the meantime, we'll just have to try and restrain ourselves when we get that from Domino's about the latest Meat Feast deal.