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Genetic link to high-calorie foods

Brain is hardwired to enjoy high-calorie foods

Credit: Allan Ajifo
Research links genes to heightened brain reward responses to foods high in fat and sugar

Researchers have identified two genetic variants that interact to alter the brain responses to high-calorie foods, a link that could aid in the development of targeted treatments for obesity and overweight. Researchers at Imperial College London led by Dr Tony Goldstone, a Consultant Endocrinologist at Imperial College of London, UK, found that two gene variants - FTO and DRD2 - influenced activity in the brain reward system when looking at pictures of high-calorie foods. The findings were presented at ObesityWeek 2015 hosted by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and The Obesity Society (TOS).

Tony Goldstone

“It means they (patients) may experience more cravings than the average person when presented with high-calorie foods - that is those high in fat and/or sugar - leading them to eat more of these foods,” said Goldstone. “Interestingly, for the first time we also found that the activation in a part of the brain called the striatum was increased when those with the variant in Fat mass and obesity-associated (FTO) gene looked at high-calorie foods, but this depended on which variant of the other gene dopamine receptor D2 (DRD2) they possessed. The DRD2 variant alters how the dopamine system works in the brain.”

To conduct their study, ‘Energy density influences interaction between FTO and DRD2 gene variants in brain reward system responses to food evaluation’, the researchers evaluated how two genetic variants near genes called FTO and DRD2 alter brain response in participants who were asked to look at pictures of either high-calorie or low-calorie foods and rate how appealing they found the pictures. This was done using a brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). All cohort participants who had an fMRI scan and DNA taken were included in the study. Those participants with a variant near the FTO gene, which predisposes a person to obesity, had greater activation when looking at high-calorie foods in a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. They also found these foods more appealing, which was not seen for low-calorie foods.

These results suggest that part of the reason people with the FTO variant are more likely to have obesity may be because dopamine signals in their brain cause them to feel more reward and craving when presented with high-calorie foods.

“It is possible that people with these particular genetic variants may respond differently to certain treatments for obesity,” he added.

Possible treatments could include those that change how the brain processes high-calorie foods and how much people like high-calorie foods, and especially those that affect dopamine systems in the brain. This might include hormones from the gut that can act on dopamine brain cells, drugs that alter the way in which dopamine works in the brain, and even specific types of gut surgery for obesity.

“These findings help us better understand the biological basis of behaviours that may predispose some people to overeating high-calorie foods, and hence obesity,” said Dr Leah Whigham, Executive Director of Paso Del Norte Institute for Healthy Living. “It could help us better target treatments for obesity so particular people get the most effective treatment, as individualised approaches to obesity are necessary. These results support a role for the FTO gene in regulation of body weight by altering human food reward processing through influences on dopaminergic neuronal function.”

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