Brain stimulation used to treat depression may reduce food cravings – and could provide a safe and effective way to treat obesity, suggests a new study.
Researchers found that stimulating the brain to alter its natural reward system shows “promise” in the treatment of obesity.
The technique yielded “positive” results after just a single treatment session, revealing its potential to become a safer alternative to treat obesity, avoiding invasive surgery and drug side effects.
Obesity is a global epidemic, with around 650 million adults and 340 million children currently considered obese, and the disease contributing to an estimated 2.8 million deaths per year worldwide.
It has been reported that, in some obesity cases, the reward system in the brain may be altered, causing a greater reward response to food than in people of normal weight.
Scientists say that can make patients more vulnerable to cravings, and can lead to weight gain.
They said the dysfunction in the reward system can also be seen in cases of addiction to substances, such as drugs or alcohol, or behaviour, such as gambling.
Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (dTMS) is a medical treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate neurons in specific areas of the brain.
It is used to treat depression and addictive behaviour, and previous studies have suggested that dTMS could be a good option to reduce drug and food cravings.
But the potential mechanism driving the changes had not been investigated until now.
Professor Livio Luzi and colleagues from the Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico Policlinico in Italy investigated the effects of dTMS on appetite in obese people.
They studied the effects of a single 30 minute session of dTMS, at high or low frequency, on blood markers potentially associated with food reward in a group of 40 obese patients.
The researchers found that high frequency dTMS “significantly increased” blood levels of beta-endorphins – neurotransmitters involved in producing heightened feelings of reward after eating food – compared to low frequency dTMS or controls.
Prof Luzi said: “For the first time, this study is able to suggest an explanation of how dTMS could alter food cravings in obese subjects.
“We also found that some blood markers potentially associated with food reward, for example glucose, vary according to gender, suggesting male/female differences in how vulnerable patients are to food cravings, and their ability to lose weight.”
Since the current study only measured changes in blood markers, the next steps for the research group include using brain imaging studies to directly identify how high frequency dTMS changes the structure and function of the obese brain, both short and long term, and extending this treatment to a larger population of obese patients.
Prof Luzi said: “Given the distressing effects of obesity in patients, and the socio-economic burden of the condition, it is increasingly urgent to identify new strategies to counteract the current obesity trends.”
He added: “dTMS could present a much safer and cheaper alternative to treat obesity compared to drugs or surgery.”
The findings are due to be presented at the European Society of Endocrinology’s annual meeting in Barcelona, Spain.