Feature Articles


New food-addiction link found

DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory

In a new study at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, scientists have found that the mere sight/smell of food spikes levels of a brain "pleasure" chemical called dopamine. The study is reported in the June 1, 2002, issue of the journal Synapse.

June 3, 2002--Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have found that the mere display of food--where food-deprived subjects are allowed to smell and taste their favorite foods without actually eating them--causes a significant elevation in brain dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. This activation of the brain's dopamine motivation circuits is distinct from the role the brain chemical plays when people actually eat, and may be similar to what addicts experience when craving drugs.

"Eating is a highly reinforcing behavior, just like taking illicit drugs," said psychiatrist Nora Volkow, the study's lead investigator. "But this is the first time anyone has shown that the dopamine system can be triggered by food when there is no pleasure associated with it since the subjects don't eat the food. This provides us with new clues about the mechanisms that lead people to eat other than just for the pleasure of eating, and in this respect may help us understand why some people overeat."

Brookhaven scientists have done extensive research showing that addictive drugs increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, and that addicts have fewer dopamine receptors than non-addicts. Last year, in an effort to understand the relationship of the dopamine system to obesity, they found that obese individuals also had fewer dopamine receptors than normal control subjects.

In the new study, the scientists investigated the role of dopamine in food intake in healthy, non-obese individuals. The researchers used positron emission tomography (PET), a brain-scanning technique, to measure dopamine levels in 10 food-deprived volunteers. Each volunteer was given an injection containing a radiotracer, a radioactive chemical "tag" designed to bind to dopamine receptors in the brain. The PET camera picks up the radioactive signal to measure the level of tracer. Since the tracer competes with dopamine for binding to the receptor, the amount of bound tracer can be used to infer the concentration of dopamine (more bound tracer = less dopamine).

Study subjects' brains were scanned four times over a two-day period, with and without food stimulation, paired with and without an oral dose of methylphenidate. Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is known to block the reabsorption of dopamine into nerve cells. The researchers wanted to see if it would amplify any subtle changes in dopamine levels.

For food stimulation, the volunteers were presented with foods they had previously reported as their favorites. The food was warmed to enhance the smell and the subjects were allowed to view and smell it, as well as taste a small portion placed on their tongues with a cotton swab. As a control, during scans when food stimulation was not used, subjects were asked to describe in as much detail as possible their family genealogy. Study participants were also instructed to describe, on a scale of 1 to 10, whether they felt hungry or desired food prior to food stimulation and then at five-minute intervals for a total of 40 minutes.

The researchers found that food stimulation in combination with oral methylphenidate produced a significant increase in extracellular dopamine in the dorsal striatum. There was also a correlation between the increase in dopamine triggered by food stimulation and methylphenidate and the changes in self-reports of "hunger" and "desire for food."

"This suggests the dopamine increases during the food/methylphenidate condition reflect the responses to food stimulation and not the isolated effects of methylphenidate," Volkow said.

The study demonstrates that methylphenidate, when used at low doses, amplifies weak dopamine signals. It also shows, for the first time, that the dopamine system in the dorsal striatum plays a role in food motivation in the human brain.

This relationship was not observed in the ventral striatum, which includes the nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain thought to be responsible for food reward.

"We and others previously thought the nucleus accumbens was the primary brain region associated with regulating food intake by modulating reward and pleasure while eating," said study coauthor Gene-Jack Wang. "These findings challenge that belief."--by Karen McNulty Walsh


Media contacts: Karen McNulty Walsh, BNL Public Affairs, (631) 344-8350, kmcnulty@bnl.gov
Mona S. Rowe, BNL Public Affairs, (631) 344-5056, mrowe@bnl.gov
Technical contacts: Nora Volkow, BNL Medical Department, (631) 344-3335, volkow@bnl.gov
Gene-Jack Wang, BNL Medical Department, (631) 344-3608, gjwang@bnl.gov

Related Web Links

"Nonhedonic food motivation in humans involves dopamine in the dorsal striatum and methylphenidate amplifies this effect," Nora D. Volkow, Gene-Jack Wang, Joanna S. Fowler, Jean Logan, Millard Jayne, Dinko Franceschi, Cristopher Wong, Samuel J. Gatley, Andrew N. Gifford, Yu-Shin Ding, Naomi Pappas, Synapse Vol. 44, Issue 3, June 1, 2002. [Abstract] [Full text PDF - requires subscription]

Brookhaven Addiction Research

Positron Emission Tomography at Brookhaven

Brookhaven Medical Department

Funding: This study was funded by DOE Office of Science's Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Medical Sciences Division, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is managed by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited liability company founded by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.

Author: Karen McNulty Walsh, a Senior Public Affairs Representative at Brookhaven National Laboratory since September 1999, has an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in biology from Vassar College. She was previously the editor of Science World, a science magazine for middle-school children, and Zillions, a kids' version of Consumer Reports. For more science news, see Brookhaven Laboratory News.