Habit circuits altered in brains of individuals with binge eating disorders

New Penn Medicine research finds that altered connectivity may make patients more vulnerable to develop binge eating disorders, and lead to stronger-developed habit circuits.

The neural circuits that form habits in the brain are altered in patients with binge eating disorder (BED), compared to those of patients without such disorders, according to new research led by the Perelman School of Medicine. The findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.

Area in the brain highlighted indicated a particular brain region.
Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News

“This research is the first step in illustrating how complicated conditions like binge eating are—these patients’ brains are wired differently,” says author Casey Halpern, an associate professor of neurosurgery and chief of stereotactic and functional neurosurgery at Penn Medicine and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “Telling someone with binge eating disorder to not eat so much would be like telling a patient with epilepsy to simply stop having seizures.”

Previous research from Halpern suggests that the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in processing pleasure and reward, and has been implicated in impulsive behaviors, can be stimulated in patients with BED to disrupt craving-related signals and reduce binging.

In patients with recurrent BED, imaging revealed decreased connectivity in circuits involving the putamen and anterior cingulate cortex, and increased connectivity between the putamen and motor cortex, and putamen and orbitofrontal cortex. Further, the research reveals the degree to which a patient’s connectivity was altered correlated with how responsive a patient was to externally-driven and emotional eating cues.

“This evidence suggests that patients who develop BED are more vulnerable to developing strong habit responses to emotional and external eating cues, and that for these patients, binging behaviors are harder to change,” says Halpern. “Our findings point to the putamen as a target for further research into how impulse and habit drive conditions like BED.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.