Stimulating the brain to alter its intrinsic reward system shows promise in the treatment of obesity, according to results presented at the 2018 European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting.
According to researchers, the technique has 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 approximately 650 million adults and 340 million children and adolescents considered obese. The disease contributes to an estimated 2.8 million deaths each 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 normal weight individuals, researchers note. This can make patients more vulnerable to cravings, and can lead to weight gain.
This dysfunction in the reward system can also be seen in cases of addiction to substances such as drugs or alcohol or behaviors 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 behaviors and previous studies have suggested that dTMS could be a good option to reduce drug and food cravings.
For this study, 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 and satiety 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 discovered that high frequency dTMS significantly increased blood levels of beta-endorphins — neurotransmitters involved in producing heightened feelings of reward after food ingestion — compared to low frequency dTMS or controls.
“For the first time, this study is able to suggest an explanation of how dTMS could alter food cravings in obese subjects,” Luzi said. “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 this study only measured changes in blood markers, the next steps for the researchers include using brain imaging studies to 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.
“Given the distressing effects of obesity in patients, and the socioeconomic burden of the condition, it is increasingly urgent to identify new strategies to counteract the current obesity trends,” Luzi said. “dTMS could present a much safer and cheaper alternative to treat obesity compared to drugs or surgery.”
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