Neural Pathways in the Brain

Sugar, Dopamine, and Obesity

New research from Washington University has identified an abnormal dopamine response to sugar in the brains of people with obesity as they age. Lead author of the study, Marta Pepino, explained:

We believe we may have identified a new abnormality in the relationship between reward response to food and dopamine in the brains of individuals with obesity. In general, people grow less fond of sweet things as they move from adolescence into adulthood. Also, as we age, we have fewer dopamine receptors in a brain structure, called the striatum, that is critical to the reward system. We find that both younger age and fewer dopamine receptors are associated with a higher preference for sweets in those of normal weight. However, in people with obesity, that was not the case in our study.

In other words, people who are not susceptible to obesity appear to lose their taste for sweets as they get older because of changes in their brain chemistry. Those same changes don’t happen in some people with obesity, leaving them with more cravings for sweets. More plentiful dopamine receptors in older people with obesity means that sugary foods are much more pleasurable for them.

Children like candy because their brains crave it more than most adult brains do. With a deeper understanding of how how neural pathways of the brain drive eating behaviors, we can develop better strategies for prevention and treatment of obesity.

Click here for the study by Pepino et al and here for more from Medical News Today.

Neural Pathways in the Brain, photograph © NICHD / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 20, 2016

4 Responses to “Sugar, Dopamine, and Obesity”

  1. June 20, 2016 at 10:08 am, Katrine Rivard said:

    Really apropos to current interests. You are a a wonderful resource!


    • June 20, 2016 at 2:45 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Katie!

  2. June 22, 2016 at 12:21 pm, Krista said:

    Sorry, confused. Younger age and FEWER dopamine receptors is associated with greater preferences for sweets in healthy weight people? Rather than fewer dopamine receptors being associated with less reward response and lower craving?

    • June 22, 2016 at 3:54 pm, Ted said:

      It’s the other way around, Krista. Most people have fewer dopamine receptors as they get older and thus have less affinity for sweets. In people with obesity, it seems that the decline in dopamine receptors might not happen and so the taste for sweets doesn’t fade. Thanks for clarifying.