Now that we’ve identified it, can we use it to help us eat better?
image via (cc) flickr user tjadin
A new study done by researchers out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory has, for the first time, identified the existence of a specific neural pathway in the brain which regulates compulsive sugar cravings independent of the body's other appetite-related processes. That's good news for anyone who finds themselves the owner of a seriously unhealthy sweet tooth—an independent neural circuit responsible for extreme sugar cravings has the potential to be treated without interfering with the body's natural appetite for other (hopefully healthier) foods.
A release from MIT announcing the study’s findings explains that while compulsive sugar craving may seem similar to drug addiction, the nature of the substance being craved marks a key difference:
Drug addiction is defined as compulsive drug-seeking despite adverse consequences at school, work, or home. Addictive drugs “hijack” the brain’s natural reward-processing center, the ventral tegmental area (VTA). But food is a natural reward and, unlike a drug, is necessary for survival, so it has been unclear whether overeating results from a similar compulsion, or from something else.
The challenge of curbing compulsive sugar consumption has long been to do so without damping down a person’s appetite as a whole. It’s a “baby/bath water” dynamic that hadn’t addressed what researchers now know to be the unique neural nature of sugar craving. As the MIT study’s lead researcher Kay Tye explained in the release:
“For the first time, we have identified how the brain encodes compulsive sugar seeking and we’ve also shown that it appears to be distinct from normal, adaptive eating ... We need to study this circuit in more depth, but our ultimate goal is to develop safe, noninvasive approaches to avert maladaptive eating behaviors, first in mice and eventually in people”
While a human application for this discovery doesn’t seem to be in our immediate future, the study’s findings mark a significant step toward better understanding—and eventually addressing—the neural chemistry behind some of our worst eating habits.