By Barry Eitel
SAN FRANCISCO (AA) - The discovery of a group of neurons in the brain is strongly linked to the desire to overindulge on food, alcohol, drugs or other binging tendencies, researchers announced Tuesday.
In the experiment, scientists trained rats to recognize external cues such as hearing a siren, as signals that they would receive a drink of sugar water. The rats, which would rush for the sugar with the speed and excitement of a drug addict, became less motivated when a certain group of neurons in a largely unstudied region of the brain were suppressed.
By studying what parts of the brain reacted to the external trigger and then suppressing these neurons, researchers believe they have found a neurological basis for binge behavior.
The research was conducted by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and published in the journal Neuron. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the State of California.
"External cues -- anything from a glimpse of powder that looks like cocaine or the jingle of an ice cream truck -- can trigger a relapse or binge eating," noted lead author Jocelyn Richard in a statement. "Our findings show where in the brain this connection between environmental stimuli and the seeking of food or drugs is occurring.”
Specifically, the neurons were located in the ventral pallidum area of the brain, which is near the spinal cord. This region is still poorly understood by neurologists, but is thought to be important in regulating behavior and motivation. The region has also been linked multiple times to drug addiction.
Scientists behind the new research were surprised at how robustly the neurons illustrated the rats’ weakness for binging. In fact, researchers were able to predict how fast the rats would rush for the sugar by just looking at how excited the ventral pallidum neurons became.
Researchers were able to suppress the neurons by using highly targeted beams of light. The team wants to perform the research on humans in the future, but currently there are no specific plans regarding how to move forward.
"We don't want to make it so that people don't want rewards," Richard continued. "We want to tone down the exaggerated motivation for rewards."