JAMA Logo One-third of American adults are believed to be obese and obesity-related disease is considered as the second leading cause of avertable death. Experts share that individuals with an undesired addictive-like eating behavior experience greater neural activity in specific areas of the brain similar to substance dependence. These people may also face eminent activation in reward circuitry as a response to food cues.

Scientists evaluated the association between food addiction symptoms with neural activation in response to cues signaling impending delivery of a highly palatable food vs. a tasteless control solution as well as consumption of a chocolate milkshake vs. a tasteless solution. The food addiction symptoms were analyzed by the Yale Food Addiction Scale and neural activation through functional magnetic resonance imaging. The study involved 48 healthy young women ranging from lean to obese gathered for a healthy weight maintenance trial.

“As predicted, elevated FA scores were associated with greater activation of regions that play a role in encoding the motivational value of stimuli in response to food cues. The ACC and medial OFC have both been implicated in motivation to feed and to consume drugs among individuals with substance dependence,” remarked authors. “In sum, these findings support the theory that compulsive food consumption may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of the rewarding properties of food. Similarly, addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to substance-related cues.”

Ashley N. Gearhardt, M.S., M.Phil., of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., and colleagues discovered that food addiction scores linked with greater activation in areas of the brain, including the anterior cingulate cortex, medial orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala. This association was found in response to probable receipt of food. People with high vs. low FA apparently faced higher activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and caudate in expected palatable food intake. They also encountered low activation in the lateral OFC during palatable food consumption.

This analysis claims to be the first to relate indicators of addictive eating behavior with a specific pattern of neural activation. The findings underline that objectively measured biological differences are related to variations in YFAS scores, thereby lending support for the efficacy of the scale. Investigators also reveal that if palatable food consumption is supplemented by loss of inhibition, the existing prominence on personal responsibility as the anecdote to increasing obesity rates may have limited benefits.

The study appears online and will be published in the August print issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.