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John Hopkins study

How do bariatric patients relearn their taste preferences?

Study to investigate neural mechanisms underlying the relearning of taste preferences and food reward in bariatric surgery

Researchers at John Hopkins have announced that they are examining how bariatric surgery causes obese individuals to relearn their taste preferences and their desire to consume high-calorie foods, and how this relearning leads to reduced calorie intake and weight loss. The interdisciplinary team by Dr Susan Carnell, Assistant Professor Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences School of Medicine, will combine behavioural measures with positron emission tomography (PET) imaging application to investigate neural mechanisms underlying the relearning of taste preferences and food reward in bariatric surgery.

It is hoped that the study, ‘Dopamine mediated relearning of food motivation and taste preferences following bariatric surgery’, will improve understanding of plasticity in brain circuits underlying food reward and the contribution of dopamine to the learning of eating habits.  They will also help improve bariatric surgery practices and inform the development of new obesity treatments.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning and motivation, plays a vital role in food reward, and is particularly dense in the striatum, a region deep inside the brain. For this project, the investigators will explore whether post-surgical changes in the intake of high-calorie foods are partly driven by a relearning of food reward and taste preferences resulting from altered dopamine functioning in the striatum.

To do this, they will recruit patients undergoing sleeve gastrectomy and use PET to measure dopamine levels in the striatum before and after surgery. Importantly, they will use PET to measure not only baseline dopamine levels, but also dopamine release in response to consumption of high-calorie food, which could be even more important for the relearning of food reward and taste preferences.

The researchers will also examine correlations between post-surgical dopamine changes, and changes in self-report measures of diet, taste preferences, and food motivation, assessed at multiple time-points from one-four weeks before surgery to one year after surgery. This study will help establish the character and time course of surgery-related changes in brain systems underlying food reward and taste preferences. It will also provide further understanding as to the extent to which these changes are mediated by changes in dietary intake.

“The results promise to teach us more about how plasticity in brain circuits contributes to weight loss from bariatric surgery, and why some people but not others are able to maintain their post-surgical weight loss,” the researchers noted. “What we learn about dopamine-mediated learning mechanisms could also be relevant to other behavioural disorders such as addiction.”

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