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Study Shows People With Food Addictions Have Same Brain Activity Patterns as People With Other Addictions

April 5, 2011 -- The brains of people with food addiction appear to behave like those of people with dependence on alcohol or drugs, according to new research.

''People who report symptoms of addictive-like eating behavior also appear to show the same pattern of brain activity as we would see in other addictions," says researcher Ashley N. Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University.

Her study is published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The researchers believe the study is the first to link addictive eating with a specific brain activity pattern.

The study results suggest that some obese people may be better served with addiction treatment than with traditional obesity treatments, says Mark Gold, MD, an addiction expert at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who reviewed the study results for WebMD.

Food Addiction and Brain Activity

With one-third of American adults obese, Gearhardt and her colleagues wanted to explore the theory that addictive processes may be involved in the development of obesity.

For the study, the researchers did a complete evaluation on 39 women, average age about 21. Their average body mass index (BMI) was 28 (25 and above is termed overweight). They ranged, however, from lean to obese. All had enrolled in a program to help people get to and maintain a healthy body weight.

The researchers used the Yale Food Addiction Scale to measure addictive eating and gave each woman a score. The scale has 25 items and asks about eating behaviors such as loss of control.

Next, the researchers used functional MRIs (fMRI), which are capable of measuring tiny metabolic changes that take place in the active parts of the brain.

The fMRIs were done when the women drank a tasty chocolate milkshake and a tasteless drink. They were also done when the women were shown pictures of the milkshake and a glass of water.

When the women looked at the picture of the milkshake, the food addiction scores correlated with greater activation in areas of the brain that help encode the motivational value of certain stimuli in response to food cues. Activation in these areas has been linked to food cravings, for instance, Gearhardt tells WebMD.

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