Baby Reaching for an Apple

Does Obesity Mess with Your Brain’s Reward Center?

For several years now, neuroscientists have been looking for connections between obesity and how our brains process rewards. Dopamine receptors play a role in the reward you feel when you eat especially tasty foods. And prior research suggests people with obesity have fewer dopamine receptors.

Now new research in Obesity shows that young adults with obesity are less motivated to work for big rewards. When the rewards are uncertain, motivation drops even more. And that drop in motivation could play a role in efforts to overcome obesity.

Less Motivation for an Uncertain Reward, More Likelihood to Drop Out of Treatment

In their study of 42 young people with excess weight, Fernanda Mata and colleagues examined how closely people followed a three-month weight loss program. It was a program of intermittent fasting. It required more effort than most programs do. People fasted two days weekly. They followed personalized nutrition guidance. They participated in prescribed physical activity.

Of the 42 who started, 17 dropped out during the 12-week study. That’s 40%. And what predicted the dropouts was a standardized measure taken up front. Less motivation to work hard for uncertain rewards was a good predictor (p < 0.02) for dropping out.

Consistent with Diminished Reward Responses

This study is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. But the findings do provide good clues for treating obesity. First, these results point to a way of identifying people likely to fall out of treatment. But also, they suggest an opportunity. Strategies for enhancing effort-based decision skills might be a real help for keeping people on track.

Persistence is key for getting to better outcomes. Obesity is a chronic disease. We don’t have cures, but we do have good tools for managing it. And better support for people who want to manage their weight will mean better long-term outcomes.

Click here for the study and here for more on the brain’s response to rewards in obesity.

Baby Reaching for an Apple, painting by Mary Cassatt / WikiArt

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August 14, 2017

2 Responses to “Does Obesity Mess with Your Brain’s Reward Center?”

  1. August 14, 2017 at 10:18 am, Jaime Fivecoat said:

    Great post Ted. I wonder if this concept can be an important one for motivation to abstain from addictions to other substances.

    Thanks for all you do for the obesity community,


    • August 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm, Ted said:

      Good thoughts and thanks for the encouragement, Jaime. I’m just following the path you created.