Understanding Obesity Through Drug Addiction

Can we use drug addiction to comprehend obesity? Scientists are finding that certain individuals have an inability to control their behavior, even when faced with negative consequences. Most obese people express a desire to eat less, yet they continue to overeat despite knowing the potential social and health risks. Studies have revealed that overeating activates the brain's reward system to such an extent that it surpasses the brain's capacity to tell them when they have had enough. Similar to alcoholics and drug addicts, the more they eat, the more they crave.

Whether or not overeating is an addiction, if it stimulates the same brain circuits as drug use, then medications that reduce the reward system could help obese people eat less. For an addiction model to be useful, it must make accurate predictions about treatment options, including new medications. These findings support the idea that in some cases, overeating may share the same characteristics as drug addiction. Vulnerability to addiction is thought to be caused by a combination of factors, such as a heightened response to signs of drug use, a tendency to form habits, poor self-control and an increase in negative emotionality.

The model suggests that this negative emotional state is a powerful motivator for drug seeking, as those in severe stages of addiction use drugs to find relief from distress. In short, people with addictive behaviors may turn to drugs as a way of dealing with stress and negative emotions. A study found that obese people with and without binge eating disorder (BED) made as many risky decisions in a monetary task as drug addicts (9). Scientists must also determine if common genetic variations, such as those affecting D2R, contribute to both drug addiction and obesity. Blockers can also reduce heroin, alcohol and cocaine use in human drug addicts, suggesting that common mechanisms regulate hedonic overeating and addictive drug use.

However, an excessive attraction to risk can lead to adverse outcomes and may be involved in the development of drug addiction. Genetic influences on impulsivity, risk-taking, sensitivity to stress and vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction are also being studied. The similarities between obesity and addiction have led some experts to suggest that the two conditions should be treated in the same way. Individual differences in impulsivity could be a common factor of both obesity and drug addiction.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a medication called Belviq for weight loss in obese or overweight adults. Results from studies indicate that participants with drug addictions show a greater focus of attention or motivation towards drug-related stimuli (130).