Common Mechanisms of Drug Abuse and Obesity

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Some of the same brain mechanisms that fuel drug addiction in humans accompany the emergence of compulsive eating behaviors and the development of obesity in animals, according to research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a component of the National Institutes of Health.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute, was released on March 28th in the online version of Nature Neuroscience and will also appear in the journal’s May 2010 print issue. When investigators gave rats access to varying levels of high-fat foods, they found unrestricted availability alone can trigger addiction-like responses in the brain, leading to compulsive eating behaviors and the onset of obesity.

“Drug addiction and obesity are two of the most challenging health problems in the United States,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of NIDA. “This research opens the door for us to apply some of the knowledge we have gathered about drug addiction to the study of overeating and obesity.”

Both obesity and drug addiction have been linked to a dysfunction in the brain’s reward system. In both cases overconsumption can trigger a gradual increase in the reward threshold — requiring more and more palatable high fat food or reinforcing drug to satisfy the craving over time.