Brain’s ‘self­con­trol’ cen­tre key to weight loss

The Borneo Post - Nature and health - - Front Page -

A BE­HAVIOURAL ther­a­pist could be as im­por­tant as a calo­rie-cut­ting diet for folks who want to lose weight, re­searchers say. Brain scans re­veal that peo­ple who are bet­ter at los­ing weight have more ac­tiv­ity in re­gions of the brain as­so­ci­ated with self-con­trol, a small new study re­ports. Teach­ing peo­ple to trig­ger their brain’s self-con­trol cen­tres could be a key fac­tor in los­ing weight and keep­ing it off, said se­nior re­searcher Dr Alain Dagher. He’s a neu­rol­o­gist with McGill Univer­sity’s Mon­treal Neu­ro­log­i­cal In­sti­tute in Canada.

“The anal­ogy that’s good here is smok­ing,” he said. “Cig­a­rette smok­ing has been largely beaten in the Western world through a com­bi­na­tion of strate­gies, and some of these tar­get self-con­trol.” Di­et­ing is a brawl be­tween two dif­fer­ent re­gions of the brain, Dagher said. Weight loss causes the body to sig­nal that there’s an en­ergy deficit, ac­ti­vat­ing a re­gion of the brain as­so­ci­ated with mo­ti­va­tion and de­sire, he said. That re­gion – the ven­tro­me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex – pro­motes hunger pangs in re­sponse.

But there’s a coun­ter­bal­anc­ing force, an­other sec­tion of the brain that pro­motes self-con­trol, called the lat­eral pre­frontal cor­tex. “It’s a strug­gle, and we’re do­ing brain imag­ing of that strug­gle, the strug­gle be­tween the de­sire to lose weight and the de­sire to eat tasty food,” Dagher said. For the study, Dagher and his col­leagues took brain scans of 24 peo­ple en­rolled in a 1,200 calo­rie-per-day diet at a weight-loss clinic. One brain scan took place be­fore start­ing the diet, an­other one month into the diet, and a third at three months.

“We showed them ap­petis­ing pic­tures of food and mea­sured the brain re­sponse to these pic­tures,” which nat­u­rally trig­gered the mo­ti­va­tion re­gion of the brain, Dagher said. Peo­ple who lost the most weight also dis­played in­creased ac­tiv­ity in the brain re­gions that pro­mote self­con­trol, over­rid­ing the hunger sig­nals from the mo­ti­va­tion cen­tres, the re­searchers said.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Jef­frey Zig­man, an en­docri­nol­o­gist with UT South­west­ern Med­i­cal Cen­tre in Dal­las, “Those peo­ple who achieved greater weight loss had a greater ac­ti­va­tion of brain re­gions that are in­volved in self-reg­u­la­tion, which might sug­gest they are bet­ter able to self-con­trol their food in­take.” In ad­di­tion, Zig­man said, “It seemed to in­di­cate that in peo­ple who re­gained weight fur­ther down the line, those ar­eas of the brain were not as ac­tive. It does sug­gest that a per­son’s abil­ity to ac­ti­vate those ar­eas of the brain in­volved in cog­ni­tive con­trol or self-reg­u­la­tion did bet­ter with achiev­ing greater weight loss.”

Dagher noted that it isn’t as sim­ple as say­ing that some peo­ple are bet­ter wired to main­tain a healthy weight, since many fac­tors can in­flu­ence how well the self-con­trol cen­tre func­tions. “It’s pos­si­ble peo­ple who had less suc­cess were more stressed. Events in their lives con­spired to make it dif­fi­cult for them to ac­ti­vate those brain re­gions,” he said. Ef­fec­tive weight-loss plans might need to in­clude treat­ments that pro­mote self-con­trol, such as cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy, Dagher sug­gested.

Smok­ers use cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy to come up with strate­gies that head off urges to reach for a cig­a­rette. The same could be done for di­eters, he ex­plained. “Peo­ple will say, ‘I tend to overeat in this sit­u­a­tion.’ You train peo­ple to un­der­stand that and to en­gage an au­to­matic sys­tem of re­sponse,” Dagher said. “I know when I’m stressed I eat junk food, so I’m go­ing to have an­other plan. When­ever I’m stressed and I have a crav­ing for junk food, I’m go­ing to have a healthy snack in­stead. You can ac­tu­ally train peo­ple to au­to­mat­i­cally en­act those sort of plans.”

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