Retrain the Brain to Treat Obesity?
A body of fascinating research is coming together to suggest that it might be possible to retrain the brain and alter its response to food cues in a way that provides meaningful reductions in obesity. The promise lies with interventions that use insights about brain responses to food and inhibit the brain activity that contributes to weight gain.
Brain imaging studies are providing ever deeper insights on brain responses that contribute to obesity. Weight gain is clearly associated with responses to food cues in brain regions of reward and attention. You see palatable food and specific brain activity starts buzzing to tell you that it’s pleasurable and you should pay attention to it.
Those insights are interesting, but they’re mainly observational. Things get really interesting when cognitive science experiments test these observations by evaluating the effects of brain training on energy intake and body weight. In Clinical Psychology Review, Eric Stice and colleagues tell us that:
Such translational neuroscience and cognitive science research holds great promise because it is based on objective behavioral and biological data from rigorous experiments, and aims to develop interventions that target bottom-up implicit, automatic processes in response to food cues, rather than relying on top-down effortful control and sustained caloric deprivation like most current treatments.
This emerging science is relatively new and promising. But caution is warranted. We don’t yet have much in the way of longer term outcomes. Short-term benefits mean nothing if they are unsustainable.
A lack of long-term outcome data will not stop people from trying to sell this science if they see an opportunity to make a buck. If you doubt that, just look at the billion-dollar brain training industry that subtly promises to make you smarter.
Brain training does offer promise for better obesity care. That promise will only bear fruit if a robust evidence base supports it. Keep an eye on this one.
Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.
July 27, 2016