Are binge eaters “wired” to overeat?

Overeating—the tendency to consume high carbohydrate/calorie foods even when hunger is
satisfied—has long been known to contribute to excessive weight gain. In its most extreme
form, binge eating, the weight gain can be massive. Researchers at the University of North
Carolina recently published in the journal “Science” the results of an interesting study which
may help to pinpoint the cause of this abnormal eating behavior. Using their technique
to “turn on” specific cells in the stria terminalis of the amygdala of experimental mice, located deep in the brain with direct connections to the lateral hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls basic drives and emotions such as fear, anger and hunger. Stimulation of these cells resulted in immediate voracious feeding activity. Given the choice, the mice strongly preferred high fat and carbohydrate-heavy foods. Scientists recommended that future research be directed toward drugs to target these cells and develop a way turn them “off” for better control of abnormal eating behavior.

The Prescription Perspective: It has been known for many years that the hypothalamus played
an important role in eating behavior. This research helps explaining the mechanisms behind this drive. Binge eating disorder, and overeating in general, are behaviors that are often difficult to control in overweight patients. This study is one of the first to narrow the focus on this behavior to a specific type of cell in the brain. Clearly overeaters do not receive the same central nervous system stimuli to stop eating as the does the general population when they have eaten sufficient food. This is particularly true in the most extreme variant of this condition, binge eating. A specific treatment to interrupt this faulty circuitry would be of
great benefit in controlling overeating. Since in the study the experimental animals continued
to eat aggressively, even after consuming amounts of food that would normally fill them up, this also raises the prospect of a specific and effective treatment for binge eating.

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