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.

Click here for the review by Stice et al. Click here for perspective from Laurel Mellin at UCSF.

Brains, photograph © Juan Camilo Trujillo / flickr

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July 27, 2016

4 Responses to “Retrain the Brain to Treat Obesity?”

  1. July 27, 2016 at 7:39 am, Gerry Stanewick said:

    What do you think VBLOC does??

    • July 27, 2016 at 8:15 am, Ted said:

      I think it helps some, but not all, with faulty signaling between the gut and the brain to reduce problems with excessive hunger. We have much more to learn.

  2. July 27, 2016 at 10:30 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    Mental health practitioners have been using “Brain Retraining Techniques” for years. In Psych jargon it is called cognitive restructuring. This describes a variety of psychological interventions that targets maladaptive behaviors and tries to replace them with healthier adaptive behaviors.

    Using brain imaging that identifies regions of the brain that transmits the chemical and neuronal messengers related to eating behaviors could indeed potentially help improving these interventions as well as validate them.

    Recognizing that the brain drives obesities is a long ways from “willful misconduct.” Bariatric science is a science whose time has come.

    Stephen Phillips
    American Association of Bariatric Science

  3. July 27, 2016 at 12:16 pm, Obese Brain said:

    Much more information about this perspective