Electric shocks to the brain took away the cravings of two patients with binge eating disorder for at least six months, a small study said.
The two patients were fitted with a brain implant to zap the part of the brain linked to cravings.
They told The New York Times that after the surgery they made better choices about food without even thinking about it.
The technique needs to be tested on more patients to check whether it works for sure. But it could offer hope for millions of people who struggle with binge eating.
No longer a ‘craving person’
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine in August, was mainly meant to test whether the device was safe to use.
But the effect on the subjects of the study was “really impressive and exciting,” said study senior author Casey Halpern, an associate professor of neurosurgery at Penn Medicine, in a press release accompanying the study.
The two patients – Robyn Baldwin, 58, and Lena Tolly, 48 – said that they had fewer binging episodes. And the implant seems to have changed their habits for the better, per The Times.
Baldwin, for instance, said she’d gotten used to swinging by a Ben & Jerry’s on her way to the pharmacy. But after the device was activated, she said: “I could go into the pharmacy and not even think about ice cream”.
The implant seems even to have tweaked the women’s food preferences.
Baldwin said she used to crave sweet foods but now preferred savory ones. Tolly would sometimes find herself eating peanut butter straight from the jar. Now she doesn’t crave it, The Times reported.
“It’s not like I don’t think about food at all,” Baldwin said. “But I’m no longer a craving person.”
Obesity needs innovative treatments
Both women, who have obesity, said that they had tried many ways to fight their weight gain before.
Both had tried extreme dieting and had surgery on their gut, a procedure called bariatric surgery, per The Times. But the weight kept coming back.
This is not uncommon for people with obesity. Research suggests that obesity is a disease that makes it very difficult for patients to keep the pounds off.
A growing body of research is trying to find treatments that don’t rely on willpower.
The idea of targeting brain waves to fight cravings has been appealing, so much so that Elon Musk recently said his Neuralink brain implant could one day fight morbid obesity.
Previous research suggested that a tiny region of the brain, the hypothalamus, sends out brainwaves before someone feels a craving.
The implant used in the study learned to recognize those brainwaves and zap that region with electricity to scramble them, which seemed to cut the cravings short.
The study followed the patients for six months. No serious side effects were reported but the patient each lost more than 11 pounds, per the press release.
One of the patients no longer fits the criteria of having a binge-eating disorder, per the release.
More research is needed
You won’t be able to find this implant at your doctor’s office. With just two patients, the scientists can’t prove for sure that it was the implant causing the weight loss.
It’s possible, for instance, that there is a placebo effect from the surgery or that the effect wears off over time.
To make sure this isn’t the case, the researchers will look to do a much larger study. These typically recruit hundreds of patients and have built-in procedures to test for the placebo effect.
For now, the study is due to keep following Tolly and Baldwin for six months and to recruit another four patients.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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