Research links brain changes from early-life trauma to binge eating later


Virginia Tech researcher Sora Shin led a study published Monday that for the first time identifies how early life trauma may change a certain brain circuit to induce binge-eating disorder later in life. Photo by Clayton Metz/Virginia Tech

Dec. 12 (UPI) — New research has identified how early-life trauma — including child abuse and neglect — may change the brain to increase a person’s risk of binge eating later in life.

Assistant professor Sora Shin of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute led the study published Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

This discovery, which was found in studies in mice, adds new perspective to binge eating, and the mechanism underlying how early-life trauma induces eating disorders, the researchers said in a news release.

And, for the first time the research identifies how early life trauma may change a certain brain circuit — a pathway in the brain that typically provides signals to stop eating — to induce binge-eating disorder later in life, the scientists said.

“What we found is a specific brain circuit that is vulnerable to stress, causing it to become dysfunctional,” Shin, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said in a news release.

Of the 3% of Americans who have binge-eating disorder at some point their lifetimes, more than 8 of 10 of them survived childhood abuse, neglect or other trauma, the release noted.

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurring episodes of eating more rapidly than normal to beyond a feeling of fullness, along with feelings of distress and loss of control, the scientists said.

For the study, Shin and the research team separated mice from their litter mates, and then studied the impact on a hormone in the brain called leptin, which has long been known to suppress appetite and weight gain by signaling the brain that it’s time to stop eating.

The scientists found that in mice that experienced early life stress and exhibited behavior similar to binge-eating, leptin was less effective in a part of the brain called the lateral hypothalamus, where many behaviors are regulated.

Without these signals from the brain, the overeating continues.

Next, the researchers identified neurons in another part of the brain called the ventrolateral periaqueductal gray that respond to the message from leptin — and the lateral hypothalamus — to regulate binge eating.

Shin said much more research must be conducted, “but by knowing the specific molecule and receptors in the brain to target, we can now provide insight and the foundation for developing therapeutic strategies for the disorder.

Dr. Mark S. Gold, professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and formerly a University of Florida distinguished professor, eminent scholar and chairman of the department of psychiatry, who was not a part of the study, underscored its significance in the release.

“Studying the role of traumatic and early life experiences of this pathway may help us fine-tune prevention and early intervention efforts to prevent binge-eating disorder,” Gold said.



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