Neurosurgeon studies brain's role in obesity

By Vaughan Elder

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Dunedin's neurosurgery research unit is looking at differences in how the brain "rewards" eating, in the hope it leads to new weight loss treatments for obese people.

The research is among the projects being worked on by the new University of Otago academic neurosurgery research unit, which is the first of its kind in the country.

Belgian neurosurgeon Prof Dirk De Ridder, who leads the unit and is head of neurosurgery at Dunedin Hospital, said the unit, along with Associate Prof Patrick Manning, would be looking at how some obese people's brains functioned differently than the brains of people in a healthy weight range.

"When you eat, you eat because the brain tells you that you need more energy. Now, normally when you have got enough energy stored then your brain says 'it's enough' and the way it does this is by creating satiety."

However, some obese people did not have properly functioning dopamine receptors which meant they had to eat more food before their brains told them they were full.

By gaining an understanding of this difference the researchers could help discover new weight loss treatments for obese people.

These treatments could take advantage of neuromodulation, which involves using electrical or magnetic stimulus to change brain activity, to replicate healthy brain activity so obese people feel full quicker.

In the "far future" this could involve having a brain implant to modulate activity, but it could also involve using medication

The research could have implications for other disorders which involve "dysfunctional reward systems", including alcoholism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"We know that people with alcohol addiction also have problems with these dopamine receptors," he said.

Another project the unit was working on, along with the Anatomy and Physiology Departments, was researching ways of "talking to the brain in a language it understands".

This meant being able to use techniques, such as neuromodulation, to replicate the signals sent in healthy brains in the brains of people with certain disorders.

"We want to mimic nature, we want to mimic how the brain conveys the message of 'this is important or this is not important'."

- Otago Daily Times

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