By Steven Reinberg
The U.S. National Institutes of Health study found that stimulating the brain's prefrontal cortex caused people to eat less, consume fewer calories from soda and fat, and lose more weight.
"Brain stimulation appears to be a useful tool for modifying activity of the prefrontal cortex, indicating the importance of mental processes in the development and treatment of obesity," said lead researcher Marci Gluck. She is an investigator at the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Gluck said previous studies from her lab found lower levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex of obese people after a meal, compared with lean people.
This brain region has been linked to behavioral regulation, taste and reward, she said.
"It is possible that disruption of this area in people who are obese might impair regulation of eating behavior and food choice, so this region might be a potential target for intervention in obesity," Gluck said.
However, a preventive health expert said thinking that brain stimulation might be a viable treatment for obesity is "absurd."
"I find the notion that as a culture we might be willing to continue spending money on junk foods that make us overeat, get fat, and get sick, and then spend more money on electrical jolts to our brains to help us resist that junk food alarming and absurd," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
For the study, nine obese volunteers were randomly assigned to either three sessions of brain stimulation or phony stimulation over nine days. Immediately after each session, the study participants had unrestricted access to food and beverages in vending machines.
The same experiment was repeated over another nine days. There were no significant differences in side effects reported by either group.
The findings could lead to new treatment options, Gluck said.
"Unfortunately, there aren't any gold standard brain-based interventions for obesity and weight loss, but we hope that findings from our study will encourage further research in this area," she said.
The stimulator used is a small, portable device with sponge electrodes.
"If future studies show promising results, this technique could be used outside of a medical setting," Gluck said. "Just as the light box became a home intervention for treating seasonal affective disorder, this device could potentially be used at home to treat weight-related disorders."
The findings of this "proof of concept" were presented Wednesday in Los Angeles at Obesity Week, a meeting hosted by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery and the Obesity Society. The study was also published in the Nov. 4 online edition of the journal Obesity.
Currently, the researchers have a larger study in progress, Gluck said.
Katz said the idea that electrical stimulation of brain regions can influence food intake and weight is interesting, but not surprising.
"All decisions and perceptions are products of the mind, which are in turn products of the brain. Decisions about food are among them," said Katz, who is also president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.
But Katz believes that changing your lifestyle by eating a healthful diet and keeping physically active is the way to reduce obesity.
"While there may be rare applications of this technology, I would encourage those seeing any kind of public health solution here to change their minds," Katz said.