Bioethics Blogs

Imaging Willpower: Using Brain Scans to Explore Obesity

Apple pieFor some people, the smell of Mom’s home-baked pie, the sight of an ice cream truck, or the sound of sizzling French fries can trigger a feeding frenzy. But others find it much easier to resist such temptations. What’s the explanation?

You might think it’s sheer willpower. But a recent study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry suggests the answer to what fuels susceptibility to food cues may be far more complex, related to subtle differences in brain chemistry [1].

Focusing on the brain-signaling chemical dopamine, researchers at the NIH Clinical Center here in Bethesda, MD, used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to scan the brains of 43 men and women with varying amounts of body fat. The PET scans showed that, compared to their leaner counterparts, obese individuals had more dopamine-triggered signaling activity in the habit-forming region of the brain, called the dorsolateral striatum. Conversely, the obese group had less dopamine signaling in the ventromedial striatum, an area of the brain that controls reward and motivation, than the slimmer group.

According to researchers, these patterns of dopamine activity could potentially make obese people more compelled to eat—and eat too much—in response to food-related cues in the environment. Indeed, when obese participants responded to the researchers’ detailed questionnaire, they reported a greater tendency than other participants to overeat when they encountered food triggers.

The team’s leader, Kevin D. Hall, who is an intramural investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), said it remains to be determined whether the brain chemistry differences detected by his group actually contribute to obesity or are the result of it.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.