Researchers discover brain circuit that controls compulsive overeating and sugar addiction

Posted on February 2, 2015

Compulsive overeating and sugar addiction are major threats to human health, but potential treatments face the risk of impairing normal feeding behaviors that are crucial for survival. A study published January 29th in the journal Cell reveals a reward-related neural circuit that specifically controls compulsive sugar consumption in mice without preventing feeding necessary for survival, providing a novel target for the safe and effective treatment of compulsive overeating in humans.

To test this idea, Tye and her team used a technique called optogenetics, which involves genetically modifying specific populations of neurons to express light-sensitive proteins that control neural excitability, and then delivering either blue or yellow light through an optic fiber to activate or inhibit those cells, respectively. Activation of the pathway from the lateral hypothalamus to the ventral tegmental area caused well-fed mice to spend more time feeding and increased the number of times mice poked their nose into a port to receive a sugar reward, even when they had to cross a platform that delivered foot shocks to get to the reward. By contrast, inhibition of the same pathway reduced this compulsive sugar-seeking behavior without decreasing food consumption in hungry mice, suggesting that different neural circuits control feeding in hungry animals.

According to Tye, it makes sense that brain circuits evolved to support binging on scarce, sugary foods whenever these valuable sources of energy become transiently available during certain seasons. But in the winter, it might be adaptive for separate neural circuits to drive hungry animals to eat whatever type of food is available but to consume less overall to ration out limited resources.

"However, in our modern day society, there is no scarcity of palatable foods, and high-sugar or high-fat foods are often even more available than fresh produce or proteins," Tye says. "We have not yet adapted to a world where there is an overabundance of sugar, so these circuits that drive us to stuff ourselves with sweets are now serving to create a new health problem. The discovery of a specific neural circuit underlying compulsive sugar consumption could pave the way for the development of targeted drug therapies to effectively treat this widespread problem."


Source material from CELL

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