When you go on a binge, almost by definition, you know you’re giving your body more than it needs. But for some reason, your brain just says, “To hell with it!” Now, according to John Hopkins University, a team of researchers has not only identified the naughty neurons in the brains of rats that trigger binge behavior, but was also able to suppress the rodents’ desires to binge by targeting these specific neurons using a process known as “optogenetics.”
First, the rats were conditioned to associate a specific sound with pushing a lever to get a drink of sugar water. You could call it a sort of “Pavlov’s rat” training. From there, researchers began monitoring the ventral pallidum in the rats’ brain. “We were surprised to see such a high number of neurons showing such a big increase in activity as soon as the sound played,” said Jocelyn M. Richard, the report’s lead author and a Johns Hopkins University post-doctoral fellow in psychological and brain sciences. In fact, the scientists were able to predict just how quickly the rats would go for the sugar based on how stimulated the neurons were by the sound cue.
To try to combat this effect, the team used “optogenetics” – defined as “a technique that allows the manipulation of cells through targeted beams of light” – to suppress the activity of these neurons while the sound was played. Indeed, the rats became less likely to pull the lever and, when they did go for the sugar, they did so more slowly.
The hope is that this research may lead to a way to help humans with addictive behavior issues. “Understanding where in the brain external triggers in the environment are able to drive and intensify wanting for food and drugs is an important step in developing new treatment strategies,” she told Munchies. “It may also help us to understand why certain individuals are more vulnerable to the magnetic properties of sights and sounds that are associated with junk food and drugs.”
Plus, if you have a pet rat with a severe drug problem, this research could be helpful for you too.