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Brain Stimulation May Reduce Food Cravings

Available research suggests that noninvasive stimulation of a specific brain area can reduce food cravings—particularly for high-calorie, "appetitive" foods, according to a review in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, published by Wolters Kluwer.

However, there isn't consistent evidence yet to show that brain stimulation can reduce actual food consumption, according to the research review by Peter A. Hall, PhD, of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and colleagues.

Brain Stimulation May Curb Carb Cravings
The researchers analyzed previous studies evaluating the effects of noninvasive brain stimulation on food cravings and food consumption. Stimulation studies have targeted a brain area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which appears to play a role in the "conscious regulation of food craving and consumption of calorie-dense foods."

The review identified 11 studies evaluating the effects of DLPFC stimulation on food cravings and/or consumption. The studies included human volunteers in laboratory settings—most often women who reported "strong and frequent" cravings for high-calorie snack foods. All studies used an appropriate sham (inactive) stimulation procedure.

Of eight studies providing data on food cravings, all but one showed a significant effect of brain stimulation. Meta-analysis of pooled data from these studies suggested a "moderate-sized effect" of DLPFC stimulation on food cravings—roughly one-half a point on a four-point self-rated scale.

Just one of the two types of stimulation studied had a significant effect on food cravings—a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The other technique evaluated, transcranial direct current stimulation, didn't significantly affect cravings.

In contrast, the results of nine studies providing data on actual food consumption were inconsistent. The pooled data analysis suggested no significant effect of brain stimulation.

Another two studies evaluated the effects of treatment using repeated sessions of DLPFC stimulation. One study found a significant reduction in total food intake after daily stimulation, while the other didn't. However, there was some evidence that stimulation specifically reduced consumption of carbohydrates—eg, cookies, cakes, and soda.

That's important, because calorie-dense snack foods are often implicated in the development of obesity. One reason it's so difficult to lose weight by dieting is that the person has to overcome the "natural preferences" for these types of appetitive foods. It's not entirely clear how DLPFC works to reduce food cravings, but evidence suggests possible effects on the "reward center" of the brain and/or enhanced cognitive control over cravings.

The available data support the conclusion that DLPFC stimulation reduces food cravings, according to Hall and coauthors. "These effects seem to be strongest for rTMS neuromodulation methods and are moderate in magnitude," they wrote.

While so far there's "no reliable effect" of brain stimulation in reducing overall food consumption, studies do suggest a possible effect on intake of carbohydrates. Hall and colleagues make suggestions for future research, clarifying the potential benefits of repeated sessions of rTMS and focusing on actual food consumption—especially calorie-dense snack foods.

— Source: Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins

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