Understanding Addiction: New Yale Study Sheds Light on the Connection between Overeating and Drug Use

June 25, 2012

Understanding Addiction: New Yale Study Sheds Light on the Connection between Overeating and Drug Use

I was about 11 years old when I went with my grandmother to an “OA” meeting. My brother and I were staying with her for the summer as my parents prepared for us to move across the country. I had just finished DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in school so the concept of so-called “anonymous” meetings was familiar to me. Alcoholics Anonymous or “AA” seemed to be part of my pre-teen lexicon, but OA was something new. My grandmother, I was certain, was not a drug user, so where were we going? It stands for “Overeaters Anonymous,” she told me, without much additional information. As she attended her meeting in a church my brother and I were permitted to play in the kids’ room, so I didn’t really get the chance to learn much more. Nearly 20 years later, OA is a term as common as AA, thanks, in part, to television series like Mike and Molly or even The Biggest Loser which chronicle the struggles of overeaters in a much more accepting light. Overeating, we seem to assume, is an addiction like any other and the treatments developed to combat it seem to confirm that assumption. However, a new study from Yale School of Medicine has produced some surprising conclusions about the so-called appetite centers of our brains. [caption id="attachment_1656" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of Victor Habbick"][/caption] Overeating and Cocaine The term cocaine chic doesn’t come from coke users’ addiction to Big Macs. Instead, our urban vocabulary understands that people who use drugs and specifically stimulants like cocaine are, in fact, far less likely to eat all that much. In fact, cocaine is a known appetite suppressant, and is used as such. Scientists have found that cocaine, a commonly abused drug, is associated with the brain’s reward circuits which seek out novelty and lead to drug abuse. A drug addiction is often tracked to these midbrain reward circuits and much study has been given to where these centers are and how they operate differently among addicts versus non addicts. Study of the brain activity of addicts in this respect have helped neuroscientists and psychologists alike better understand the relationship between brain activity, addiction, and recovery. It was in this vein the Yale researchers Marcelo O. Dietrich and Tamas L. Horvath began looking at the midbrain in an attempt to help treat metabolic disorders associated with addictive behaviors, namely, obesity and Type II diabetes. What they found, however, shocked them and the neuroscientific community alike. “Using genetic approaches, we found that increased appetite for food can actually be associated with decreased interest in novelty as well as in cocaine, and on the other hand, less interest in food can predict increased interest in cocaine,” Dietrich explained in a press release. In other words food addiction and drug addiction are not the same thing, neurologically speaking. Horvath continued to expound on this point. “We found that animals that have less interest in food are more interested in novelty-seeking behaviors and drugs like cocaine. This suggests that there may be individuals with increased drive of the reward circuitry, but who are still lean. This is a complex trait that arises from the activity of the basic feeding circuits during development, which then impacts the adult response to drugs and novelty in the environment.” Ultimately, the results of this study, which was digitally published in the June edition of Nature Neuroscience, may change the way that food addiction and drug addiction are treated. “There is this contemporary view that obesity is associated with the increased drive of the reward circuitry,” Horvath added. “But here, we provide a contrasting view: that the reward aspect can be very high, but subjects can still be very lean. At the same time, it indicates that a set of people who have no interest in food, might be more prone to drug addiction.” Implications We may all know what OA is these days, but understanding what drives one person to overeating versus drug and alcohol use is another story. As educators who deal with teens whose actions and neural connections are still forming, understanding the nature of addiction in general is important. However, finding the different neurological as well as psychological cues that lead an individual to one form of addiction over another is equally important. In order to best help our students, we need to know why they make the decisions that they do and be aware of the behaviors and predispositions that may lead them to those choices. This study, though it is clearly only the first step in segregating the types of addiction common among our population, represents important forward motion in this regard.



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