In a TEDMED talk published last week, renowned neuroscientist Nora Volkow, MD, discusses using insights from her research on drug addiction and brain chemistry to better understand the obesity epidemic.
Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the NIH, thought compulsive drug-taking behavior seemed remarkably similar to not being able to control what one eats. And indeed, with the help of PET scans that image living human brains, she found that the brain chemistry behind these two stigmatized problems is very similar.
The problem has to do with fewer dopamine D2 receptors; in her words, that's "the biochemical signature of a brain where the capacity to control strong urges has been compromised." She goes on to talk about such things as pleasurable stimuli versus conditioned stimuli, deprivation states, and how modern society could engineer environments that encourage health.
Volkow ends on a sociological note, challenging the moralizing idea that addiction and obesity indicate a failure to self-regulate:
Dismissal of addiction and obesity as just problems of self-control ignores the fact that for us to be able to exert self-control would require the proper function of the areas in our brains that regulate our behaviors... It's like driving a car without brakes. No matter how much you want to stop, you will not be able to do it.