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Is the brain’s self-control center a key to weight loss

New research claims behavioral therapy is just as important as diet and exercise to enjoy a healthy weight. A new small study from McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada says those who have an easier time losing weight enjoy more activity in the brain regions linked to self-control.

Two Different Regions

According to senior researcher and neurologist Dr. Alain Dagher of McGill University, dieting is an ongoing battle between two sections of the brain. Weight loss tells the body it needs more energy, causing activation in part of the brain connected to desire and motivation. Known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, this brain section triggers hunger pangs in response to the energy deficit. Yet another section of the brain promoting self-control, the lateral prefrontal cortex, counters these pangs.

“It’s a struggle, and we’re doing brain imaging of that struggle, the struggle between the desire to lose weight and the desire to eat tasty food,” Dagher said. “The analogy that’s good here is smoking. Cigarette smoking has been largely beaten in the Western world through a combination of strategies, and some of these target self-control.”

A Brain Scan Study

Dagher and his colleagues scanned the brains of 24 participants in a weight loss clinic program where they had to eat 1,200 calories a day. One scan started prior to the diet, another about a month into the program, and the last three months in.

“We showed them appetizing pictures of food and measured the brain response to these pictures,” which naturally triggered the motivation region of the brain, Dagher said.

Greater Self-Control

Those who shed the most weight had more brain activity in the self-control regions.

“Those people who achieved greater weight loss had a greater activation of brain regions that are involved in self-regulation, which might suggest they are better able to self-control their food intake,” said Dr. Jeffrey Zigman, an endocrinologist with UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
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