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CNN Today

Obesity and the Brain: Is There a Connection?

Aired February 2, 2001 - 2:20 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: There's new scientific evidence that being overweight may be more than just a matter of willpower. New research shows a chemical in the brain may play a significant role.

Medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us now to tell us about this -- Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, this is very interesting because, more and more, doctors are looking at obesity as a disease with real biological underpinnings. And what they -- the chemical that they looked at that Natalie referred to is called dopamine. And it's a neurotransmitter.

Dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure, feelings of satisfaction. And what they found -- this is the interesting part -- is that obese people do not have as many receptors for that chemical in their brain. So it's a lack of receptors in the brain. What they did is they did PET scans of obese and PET scans of nonobese people. And you can look here and you can see, for a nonobese subject, there's lots of red. And that red means neurotransmitters -- or the receptors for the neurotransmitter are there.

But if you look at the obese subject, you don't see so much red. And that means that there aren't a whole lot of receptors there. And they saw this when they looked at 10 different obese subjects. And the findings were consistent. And the heavier the person was, the fewer receptors they had. So now, what they found is that if the -- they're thinking is that, if the obese people aren't feeling pleasure from the food, they keep eating in order to get that pleasure.

And one of the interesting things here is that they found that the PET scans look similar to PET scans of drug addicts who keep taking drugs in order to feel pleasure.

ALLEN: Well, it seems that we have heard about more conditions being attached to certain chemicals in the brain. How do scientists know that the chemical comes before the obesity? Could it be that obese people create a chemical created in the brain from being obese?

COHEN: Scientists have a very technical name for this. And it's the "chicken-egg syndrome."

ALLEN: Very scientific. COHEN: What they can't figure out, just as Natalie said, is which came first: Do obese people -- are they born with receptors like that? Or is the fact that they overeat, does that make them have the receptors? So that's the next thing that they need to figure out. But if they figure that out, they can try to produce drugs that will treat this. Right now, there are amphetamines which try to treat dopamine.

But amphetamines are highly, highly, addictive. And a lot of doctors don't want to proscribe them. They need to get better drugs. Now, some other good news is that exercise does change your dopamine levels. And, of course, exercise is always good. So before they get better drugs, you an always try exercise to get that dopamine going.

ALLEN: Back to that, you know, weight control 101.

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: Exactly. Exactly.

ALLEN: Get out and exercise. Elizabeth, thanks.

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