Yale University researchers have found the same nerve cells in the brain that control hunger and overeating also drive an appetite for cocaine, drug addiction and novelty-seeking behavior.
The finding, reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, could point the way for effective new treatments for obesity and diabetes, as well as drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors.
Researchers, led by Marcelo O. Dietrich, zeroed in on the “reward centers” of the brains of mice for clues to the development of new treatments for metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes in people.
Based on their findings, Dietrich said, scientists believe that for some people food may become a type of "drug of abuse" similar to cocaine.
For the study, the research team studied two sets of mice, manipulating the brain chemicals that control hunger, and then measuring how they responded to novelty, anxiety, and cocaine.
The researchers’ findings indicate parts of the brain that control vital functions – such as body temperature, hunger, thirst fatigue and sleep – are key to the development of higher brain functions that may drive some behaviors and pleasure seeking.
"These hunger-promoting neurons are critically important during development to establish the set point of higher brain functions,” said researcher Tamas L. Horvath, “and their impaired function may be the underlying cause for altered motivated and cognitive behaviors."
The study funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.