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Researchers say it’s possible to block the neurons that make us eat when we’re not hungry.

June 16, 2017

After eating a huge meal, have you ever seen an ad for a delicious hot pizza, suddenly felt hungry again, and began to wonder, What the hell is wrong with me? Well, good news: According to new research, there might not be anything wrong with you at all. Instead, there might be something wrong with your brain neurons. And in the future, drugs may be able to cut those cravings.

In a study published this week in the journal Nature, researchers from Harvard Medical School claim to have uncovered the specific pathways in the brains of mice that cause hunger to become a craving. “Every day, when we become hungry, our body tells us we need to find food,” Dr. Mark Andermann, co-senior author of the paper, told WBUR’s CommonHealth. “And people had found in many studies in humans that there are parts of the cortex, the outer bark of the brain, where hunger is driving you to find that food. But nobody understood the pathway from hunger to this craving. And we used special tools in mice to figure out the pathway from neurons involved in hunger to this brain region involved in cravings, or at least one part of it.”

The real life implications of this knowledge could be even more astounding. The researchers say that by activating these “few thousand neurons” in mice, they were able to make the animals hungry again, causing them to eat more even after they’re full. The opposite was true as well. “We went in and we selectively disrupted that pathway in between, and we found that it made the animal stop reacting to these food cues,” said Andermann.

As a result, Andermann said he “wholeheartedly” believes that his research could one day lead to the development of drugs that are able to stop food-cue-related cravings. “[In mice] you could shut off the insular cortex, which is the craving part of the pathway that we can now image, and the animals, if they had access to healthy food in their home cage, they'd eat it just like they did before,” he explained. “But if they had to react to these food pictures, they stopped doing that. So it's like finding a sharper scalpel or knife by which to separate out deliberate eating, for example during a meal, versus reacting to that food advertisement.”

Yes, imagine, if you will, a future where you can take a drug before watching TV or checking Instagram to make sure you aren’t enticed to indulge on whatever’s trending. Wait, that sounds kind of depressing…