Recently published study results suggest a way to help people with a serious binge-eating or gambling problem
By Katrina Caruso
Occasional binge eaing happens to the best of us. It can be really difficult to stop eating once that bag of chips is ripped open or you’re seated conveniently near the potluck spread. We often don’t even realize what we’re doing until we’re reaching for the Tums afterwards. Some people, however, simply can’t stop themselves, whether the urge is to eat, drink, or gamble.
These compulsive urges are produced in the brain. Now a research team at Stanford University, led by neurosurgeon Dr. Casey Halpern, has located a specific signal in the brain’s reward and learning area (called the nucleus accumbens) that gets activated just before an episode of bingeing—and we may soon have a way to stop such episodes.
The brain’s reward system lets us understand positive experiences, such as hugging, eating chocolate, or receiving gifts. The brain learns to associate these experiences with pleasure. However, sometimes the pleasure sensors can get overstimulated, which can cause addictions and compulsive behaviours.
The Stanford researchers taught mice to binge by feeding them high-fat food and then monitored their brain-wave activity. Binge-eating mice had a tell-tale spike in brain activity just before they began uncontrollably overeating. Delivering an electric zap to the mice’s nucleus accumbens at precisely that moment, however, stopped the bingeing. The study results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The procedure is a slight modification to a currently used medical treatment called deep-brain stimulation (DBS), which can help patients with illnesses such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and Parkinson’s. Unlike this study’s timely pre-binge zap, DBS provides a consistent current.
Of course, this kind of procedure wouldn’t be applied willy-nilly. It would be meant for extreme cases, those in which people’s addictions, cravings, and urges are causing them harm, as in cases of extreme alcoholism or compulsive gambling. And as with all mouse-based studies, there’s the question of whether a brain zap will produce the same results in people. Halpern has applied to test the procedure in human subjects with obesity who are plagued by compulsive eating.