Scientists have developed a treatment for food cravings that involves sending electric currents through patients’ brains to turn off impulses to eat at the source. The current targets the reward system of the brain, involved in making you feel good after eating, receiving a compliment, or having sex.
The treatment shocks this particular area of the brain to prevent impulses for pleasurable behavior before they are indulged. It is based on a study conducted at Stanford University on both mice and humans, which showed binge behavior can be deterred with the treatment.
“We have an application with the National Institutes of Health to test this in obese patients that exhibit binge like behavior,” said Casey Halpern, lead author of the study. The treatment is only intended for those with severe debilitation from obesity or who are believed to be dying — not for just anyone who can’t resist a plate of fries.
In 2013, Halpern’s group showed that this particular type of stimulation could reduce binge eating behavior in mice by up to 50 percent. The scientists first induced binge eating on the mice by consistently overfeeding them high-fat foods. They monitored non-food-related pleasurable activities, such as interacting with young mice, as well. They wanted to be sure that the aversion to food did not also translate to an aversion to other pleasurable activities, as this could be harmful. Before the electrical stimulation, these behaviors were normal.
For the new study, researchers monitored the mice’s brains to identify particular patterns of activity that occurred while the mice were anticipating a reward — in other words, more or less the moment when a mouse would translate a craving for food into the action of eating.
The researchers tested four patterns of electrical stimulation: random, continuous, manual (triggered by a researcher when a mouse was observed moving toward food), and automatic (triggered by the signature patterns described above). The researchers observed a decline in binge behavior with each type except the random stimulation — and only the continuous stimulation affected mice’s tendency to interact with their young.
They then turned to research on the human brain. A patient with obsessive-compulsive disorder was monitored while responding to an induced impulse to press a button for a cash reward. Similar brain activity was observed as in the mice, suggesting that the treatment could be used to target impulses in humans as well.
The researchers plan to investigate the technique’s effect on human food cravings next. This treatment is not yet available to the public — which is probably a good thing, since it has not yet been comprehensively cleared for side effects. However, one way you can control your cravings is to learn more about them. Here are 15 popular food cravings and what they mean.