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Brains of Obese May Crave
Addiction Linked Hormone

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A brain chemical linked to drug addiction may also contribute to obesity, researchers have found. They say the discovery could lead to new ways to suppress food cravings in obese individuals.

Obese people appear to have fewer brain receptors for dopamine, a chemical that helps produce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This abnormal brain circuitry has also been found in people addicted to cocaine, alcohol and other drugs.

The new finding suggests that, lacking a normal number of dopamine receptors, obese people may use food to trigger a drug-like effect on the brain's dopamine ``pleasure'' centers.

``The dopamine system is our reward system,'' Dr. Gene-Jack Wang explained in an interview with Reuters Health. ``Obese people may use food to compensate for a dysfunctional dopamine system.''

Wang and his colleagues at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, compared brain scans from 10 obese study participants with those from 10 normal-weight participants.

The investigators found not only that obese people had fewer dopamine receptors, but also that the heavier the individual, the fewer the receptors. The findings are published in the February 3rd issue of The Lancet.

The idea that food and drugs act on the same brain centers is not new. Previous research has shown that food intake influences dopamine levels, and addictive drugs are known to boost dopamine concentrations, creating their characteristic ''high.'' Some scientists believe the high rate of drug use and smoking among people with eating disorders can be partly explained by their increased need for dopamine.

In the case of obesity, it is unclear whether some people may have a naturally low number of dopamine receptors that predisposes them to overeating or if they lose the receptors due to ``chronic overstimulation'' from a lifetime of consuming too much food, Wang said.

It is possible that obese people's eating patterns may send their dopamine levels so high that their brains compensate by shutting down receptors.

Wang said he and his colleagues are now trying to answer this ``cause-and-effect'' question. If further research confirms this study's findings, he said, it may be possible to suppress overeating with drugs that enhance dopamine production.

But a readily available treatment is that old standby--exercise, which is known to elevate dopamine levels, Wang said. Moreover, the roots of obesity are complex, involving a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Dopamine, according to Wang, is only one potential contributor.


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