New Study Expands Understanding of Cravings


A girl looks at cookies on a counter | Image by Shutterstock

Researchers out of Yale, Dartmouth, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) have discovered new insight into the mechanisms that control cravings.

The study identified a neural biomarker, or stable brain pattern, associated with food and drug cravings. The findings could one day help differentiate drug users and non-users and eventually diagnose substance abuse disorders.

While it is understood that cravings can lead to binge eating or drug abuse, until now, little was known about what drives the desire.

With some conditions, doctors can look for specific biological markers to generate a diagnosis. For example, a physician can perform an A1C test to measure blood sugar levels to confirm the presence of diabetes.

Currently, tests of this kind do not exist “for psychopathology and certainly not for addiction,” said Hedy Kober, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and an author of the study.

“One benefit of having a stable biological indicator for a disease is that you can then give the test to any person and say that they do or do not have that disease,” explained Kober.

The authors of the study theorized that individuals experiencing cravings might share common brain pattern activity. To test the theory, an algorithm was used to identify and learn any potential pattern and subsequently predict craving levels.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were used for the algorithm, as were self-reported craving levels from the 99 participants. The fMRI, combined with the reported craving levels, provided the computer with the necessary inputs to learn the relationship between cravings and brain activity.

The authors discovered a pattern they termed the “Neurobiological Craving Signature” (NCS). The activity was witnessed in numerous brain regions previously shown to correlate with cravings. The NCS, however, presented a level of detail previously unattained, showing how neural activity in brain subregions can predict cravings.

According to Kober, the NCS provides a “granular understanding of how these regions interact with and predict the subjective experience of craving.”

Moreover, the researchers found that food and drug cravings were similar. The authors suspect the reason stems from both originating from the same neural systems. However, they could distinguish between drug users and non-users based on brain activity but did not make the same conclusions regarding food cues.

The NCS could predict cravings across various substances, like cocaine, alcohol, and cigarettes. As a result, Kober said that the NCS is “really a biomarker for cravings and addiction.”

The NCS could also be used to better understand the impact of motivation and emotion on cravings. Another study member, Leonie Koban from the CNRS, said that research in the future can “measure how stress or negative emotions increase the urge to use drugs or to indulge in our favorite chocolate.”

While the study findings are encouraging, more validation, likely requiring years of research, is needed before the NCS can be used in clinical applications, said Kober. She is already working to determine if it can predict the likely response drug users might expect when given treatment.

One day, Kober hopes the advancement will allow modern medicine to not only “identify who has a substance use disorder and to understand the variance in people’s outcomes, but also who will respond to particular treatments.”

This would help to develop better treatment strategies in the future for drug use and binge eating alike — both of which are at the heart of raging health concerns in the nation today.

According to the Healthy North Texas Community Health website, Dallas experienced 14.4 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents between 2018 and 2020. This compares to 23.0 per 100,000 nationally.

Dallas-Fort Worth is also the 19th most obese metro in the U.S., while the Lone Star State ranks 10th for childhood obesity.

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