July 19, 2016 - Available research suggests that noninvasive stimulation of a specific brain area can reduce food cravings -- particularly for high-calorie, "appetitive" foods, according to a review in the Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.
However, there's not yet consistent evidence to show that brain stimulation can reduce actual food consumption, according to the research review by Peter A. Hall, PhD, of University of Waterloo, Ont., Canada, and colleagues.
Brain Stimulation May Curb Your Cravings -- Especially for Carbs
The researchers analyzed previous studies evaluating the effects of noninvasive brain stimulation on food cravings and food consumption. Stimulation studies have targeted a brain area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which appears to play a role in the "conscious regulation of food craving and consumption of calorie-dense foods."
The review identified eleven studies evaluating the effects of DLPFC stimulation on food cravings and/or consumption. The studies included human volunteers in laboratory settings -- most often women who reported "strong and frequent" cravings for high-calorie snack foods. All studies used an appropriate sham (inactive) stimulation procedure.
Of eight studies providing data on food cravings, all but one showed a significant effect of brain stimulation. Meta-analysis of pooled data from these studies suggested a "moderate-sized effect" of DLPFC stimulation on food cravings -- roughly half a point on a four-point self-rated scale.
Just one of the two types of stimulation studied had a significant effect on food cravings--a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The other technique evaluated, transcranial direct current stimulation, did not significantly affect cravings.
In contrast, the results of nine studies providing data on actual food consumption were inconsistent. The pooled data analysis suggested no significant effect of brain stimulation.
Another two studies evaluated the effects of treatment using repeated sessions of DLPFC stimulation. One study found a significant reduction in total food intake after daily stimulation, while the other did not. However, there was some evidence that stimulation specifically reduced consumption of carbohydrates -- for example, cookies, cakes, and soda.
That's important, because calorie-dense snack foods are often implicated in the development of obesity. One reason it's so difficult to lose weight by dieting is that the person has to overcome the "natural preferences" for these types of appetitive foods. It's not entirely clear how DLPFC works to reduce food cravings, but evidence suggests possible effects on the "reward center" of the brain and/or enhanced cognitive control over cravings.
The available data support the conclusion that DLPFC stimulation reduces food cravings, Dr. Hall and coauthors believe. "These effects seem to be strongest for rTMS neuromodulation methods and are moderate in magnitude," they write.
While so far there's "no reliable effect" of brain stimulation in reducing overall food consumption, studies do suggest a possible effect on intake of carbohydrates. Dr. Hall and colleagues make suggestions for future research, clarifying the potential benefits of repeated sessions of rTMS and focusing on actual food consumption -- especially calorie-dense snack foods.
Article: "Effects of Noninvasive Brain Stimulation on Food Cravings and Consumption: A Meta-Analytic Review." (doi; 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000368)
About Psychosomatic Medicine
Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, founded in 1939, is the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. It publishes experimental and clinical studies dealing with various aspects of the relationships among social, psychological, and behavioral factors and bodily processes in humans and animals. Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine is an international, interdisciplinary journal devoted to experimental and clinical investigation in behavioral biology, psychiatry, psychology, physiology, anthropology, and clinical medicine. The print journal is published nine times a year; most articles are published online ahead of print.
About the American Psychosomatic Society
The mission of the American Psychosomatic Society is to promote and advance the scientific understanding and multidisciplinary integration of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in human health and disease, and to foster the dissemination and application of this understanding in education and health care.
The American Psychosomatic Society is a worldwide community of scholars and clinicians dedicated to the scientific understanding of the interaction of mind, brain, body and social context in promoting health. The organization is devoted to biopsychosocial research and integrated clinical care, and to providing a forum via its website, Annual Meeting and journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, for sharing this research. Its members are from around the world, including specialists from all medical and health-related disciplines, the behavioral sciences, and the social sciences.
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