Maintaining weight off is as much as your mind, not simply willpower, researchers uncover

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What if an MRI scan could determine whether a weight loss program is likely to be effective? Researchers at Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have discovered a neural subnet of connected regions between the brain and the basic electrical frequency of the stomach that correlates with future weight loss based on connectivity patterns.

The results of the multidisciplinary team at BGU, published in the journal NeuroImage, support a widespread neural theory that people with an increased neural response to seeing and smelling food constantly overeat and gain weight.

“To our surprise, we found that higher executive functions, as measured by behavior, were dominant factors in weight loss, but were not reflected in patterns of brain connectivity,” says Gidon Levakov, a graduate student who led the study at the BGU Department of Brain and cognitive science.

“As a result, we have found that weight loss is not just a matter of willpower, but actually involves much more basic visual and olfactory cues.”

The researchers identified a connection between the basic electrical rhythm of the stomach within the subnetwork and weight loss. This rhythm regulates the stomach waves that are associated with hunger and satiety. They also found that the brain’s pericalcarine sulcus, the anatomical location of the primary visual cortex, was the most active node on this subnet.

The team examined 92 people during an 18-month lifestyle weight loss intervention led by Prof. Iris Shai from the BGU’s Department of Epidemiology. Participants were selected based on large waist size, abnormal blood lipid levels, and age.

Prior to the intervention, participants underwent a series of brain image scans and behavioral tests. Participants’ weight loss was measured after a six-month diet, which, according to Prof. Shai, generally achieves maximum weight loss.

The team found that the subnet of brain regions corresponded more to the basic sensory and motor regions than to the higher multimodal regions.

“It seems that visual information can be an important factor that triggers eating,” says lead researcher Prof. Galia Avidan of the BGU’s departments of brain and cognitive sciences and psychology. “This is reasonable because sight is the primary sense in humans.”

The researchers note that these results can have a significant impact on understanding the cause of obesity and the mechanism of reaction to diets.

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More information:
Gidon Levakov et al., Neural Correlates of Future Weight Loss, Show Possible Role in Brain-Stomach Interactions, NeuroImage (2020). DOI: 10.1016 / j.neuroimage.2020.117403 Provided by American Associates, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

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