Food Cravings Could Be Cut With Magnetic Brain Stimulation, New Obesity Study Shows

Stimulating the brain with magnetic energy could curb food cravings in people with obesity, according to scientists.

Researchers in Italy arrived at this conclusion after they investigated whether a technique known as Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (dTMS) could be used as an alternative to invasive surgery or drugs in treating obesity.

Their results, which are set to be presented at the European Society of Endocrinology meeting in Barcelona, build on previous evidence suggesting the condition may be caused by problems with the reward pathway in the brain. Some obese patients are thought to be more prone to food cravings than the general population because of changes in this neurophysiological pathway, similarly to how some people are more vulnerable to addictive substances and behaviors such as drinking or gambling.

The findings come amid a global epidemic, where around 650 million adults and 340 million children and adolescents are obese, according to the World Health Organization. Worldwide, some 2.8 million people die of conditions related to obesity every year.

A new study has suggested that magnetic brain stimulation could be used to treat obesity. Getty Images

dTMS involves stimulating brain neurons with magnetic energy. Already used to treat depression and addictive behaviors, the researchers surmised it could also tackle food cravings.

The team at the IRCCS Policlinico San Donato, Italy, tested their hypothesis by administering dTMS to 40 obese patients for 30 minutes, at high or low frequencies. Obesity was defined as a BMI between 30 and 45.

They then measured the presence of beta-endorphins—neurotransmitters associated with feelings of reward after food is ingested—in their bodies.

The results showed that high frequency dTMS caused levels of beta-endorphins to rise when compared with low level or no treatment.

Moving forwards, the researchers hope to use brain imaging to examine how high frequency dTMS changes obese people's brain processes and structure. When the long- and short-term outcomes are understood, the treatment could be used to treat obese patients, they believe.

Professor Livio Luzi, lead author of the study, told Newsweek: "The study is significant because it demonstrates the neurophysiological mechanism via which transcranial magnetic stimulation can modulate the reward pathway increasing the levels of beta-endorphins and reducing appetite.

"Our innovative idea was to apply the methodology to obesity considering this disease as a 'food addiction.'"

As the treatment is already FDA approved for use with major depression, he said it is likely it would also be rolled out to treat obesity. He hopes it will be available in Italy in the next 12 months.

"Since the methodology is safe, repeatable and relatively inexpensive in my opinion [it] could be theoretically used to prevent obesity. In this latter case the real issue will be to identify the at risk target population, namely why we should treat to prevent weight gain," he added, stressing this was not, however, the aim of the study.

Dr. Donna Ryan, president-elect of the World Obesity Federation, who wasn't involved in the study, agreed it was significant.

"It points to the strong biologic basis for food preferences and eating behaviors. It shows that there are important areas in the brain that regulate hunger and craving for foods. It is yet more evidence that individuals struggling with excess bodyweight have biological reasons underlying their struggles and that losing weight is not just a matter of will power," she told Newsweek.

"As in patients with severe depression, it might find a place to be used as a therapy when other therapies fail. To bring a treatment like this to approval is a five-to-seven-year process, at a minimum."

Asked if it could be used to prevent obesity, she said no. "With more than 70% of American adults suffering from overweight or obesity, we need approaches that can be applied widely. We believe the drivers of the epidemic are largely environmental and that approaches to a healthier environment are the right preventive approach."

Speaking broadly, she added: "We can't prevent our way out of the problem and we can't treat our way out. We need to do both. Obesity is a complex, chronic disease in its own right, and a driver of the non-communicable diseases [heart disease, cancer, diabetes] that challenge the world in the 21st century."