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Non-invasive Brain Stimulation to Improve Food-related Self-control

Dean Pomerleau

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This LA Times article focuses on a new study [1] using non-invasive brain stimulation of the left prefrontal cortex to improve the ability of obese people to make better food choices through increased self-discipline. The study was small, but observed quite dramatic results in what sounds like a pretty well-conducted controlled intervention trial. Here are highlights of the study:


When participants got a sham current, and when they got electrical stimulation directed elsewhere, they consumed between 3,500 and 3,700 calories per day, with fat calories representing between 37.5 and 40% of their daily intake.

When participants got current directed at the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, though, they consumed an average of 2,863 calories daily -- a reduction of 18% to 23%. And fat represented a smaller proportion -- 35.6% -- of their daily calories. Daily consumption of calories from soda plunged by as much as 50%, as well. And they lost significantly more weight.


While weight loss is obviously not our goal, increasing one's self-control via non-invasive brain stimulation might be quite useful for CR practitioners. Note this technology is gaining popularity among biohackers, and a similar technology is now available commercially as the Thync device:


Disclaimer - I haven't tried Thync or any similar device, and honestly I'm pretty skeptical. But the trial described above is suggestive about the potential of this kind of technology.


[1] Marci E. Gluck et al. Neuromodulation targeted to the prefrontal cortex induces changes in energy intake and weight loss in obesity, Obesity (2015). DOI: 10.1002/oby.21313

Full Text: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21313/abstract


Obesity is associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) modifies cortical excitability and may facilitate improved control of eating. The energy intake (EI) and body weight in subjects who received cathodal versus sham (study 1) and subsequent anodal versus sham (study 2) tDCS aimed at the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (LDLPFC) were measured.

Nine (3m, 6f) healthy volunteers with obesity (94 ± 15 kg [M ± SD]; 42 ± 8 y) were admitted as inpatients for 9 days to participate in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled crossover experiment. Study 1: following 5 days of a weight-maintaining diet, participants received cathodal or sham tDCS (2 mA, 40 min) on three consecutive mornings and then ate ad libitum from a computerized vending machine, which recorded EI. Weight was measured daily. Study 2: participants repeated the study, maintaining original assignment to active (this time anodal) and sham.

Participants tended to consume fewer kilocalories per day (P = 0.07), significantly fewer kilocalories from soda (P = 0.02) and fat (P = 0.03), and had a greater % weight loss (P = 0.009) during anodal versus cathodal tDCS.

The results indicated a role for the LDLPFC in obesity and food intake. This proof of concept study suggested, for the first time, the potential application of anodal tDCS to facilitate weight loss.

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