Brain may crave fast-food fix

VANDERBILT (US)—Researchers are investigating the disruptive effect high-fat, high-sugar foods may have on insulin signaling in the brain, and its regulation of neurotransmitters involved in mood and behavior. The findings could lead to new ways to treat obesity and diabetes.

“It’s really very strange to be using this sort of addiction language for a metabolic disorder like obesity, but the basic mechanisms seem to fit,” says Kevin Niswender, assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University.

Niswender, a specialist in metabolism and diabetes, has joined forces with Aurelio Galli, associate professor of molecular physiology and biophysics who studies drug addiction, to determine if consumption of “fast foods,” including soft drinks sweetened by high-fructose corn syrup, could disrupt insulin signaling and lead to food addiction and obesity.

Because insulin resistance impairs the normal dopamine “reward pathway,” it’s possible you may have to eat “more of the same high-fat, high-carbohydrate types of foods to give you the same amount of reward you used to get,” Niswender says.

“How many exposures to that sort of a meal does it take to induce these mechanisms in the brain?” he asks. “Are those mechanisms reversible? Do they reverse with weight loss? Can we identify new molecular targets for drug development to treat obesity with drugs?”

Galli and Niswender will try to answer those questions in molecular and animal studies, using a broad range of techniques. Ultimately, they would like to apply their findings to humans.

“We are equipped to go from the single protein to the human brain,” Galli says.

The work is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Vanderbilt University news: