Eating disorders are on the list of 'modern' diseases, and are rarely taken seriously. A lot of people think it is simply a state of mind, and not a real thing that deserves treatment. However, the body has various mechanisms to regulate appetite, and, by proxy, food intake. Sometimes, biological intervention is possible, as is the case with something called a binge eating disorder. Scientists from Boston University School of Medicine discovered that by blocking a certain protein, that serves as a receptor for incoming signals, binge eating behaviour can be reduced.
To assess the relationship between binge eating and this particular receptor, called Sigma-1, the scientists fed a group of rats. They were used as a model to simulate human behaviour, as is customary in scientific research. Binge eating was simulated by feeding rats with a sugary chocolate diet, while a control group was given ordinary lab food. The scientists successfully induced binge eating, as two weeks of the chocolate diet increased food intake four-fold, and the rate at which the rats ate doubled. Additionally, the rats engaged in risky behaviour in order to acquire the food, something that is also observed in human patients with binge eating disorder.
In addition to the two food groups, the scientists treated some of the rats with a drug, that blocks the activity of the aforementioned Sigma-1 receptor. Sigma-1 is predominantly active in the brain, in an area that influences decision making, and it was already found to be behaving abnormally in patients diagnosed with binge eating disorder. Therefore, the scientists hoped that blocking it in rats would help reduce malicious eating behaviour.
In the group of rats fed with chocolate, treatment with the Sigma-1 blocker decreased food intake by 40 percent, a rather significant drop. Additionally, the rats in this group ate slower and ceased their risky behaviour in order to get to their food. It shows that blocking Sigma-1 has a rather large impact on rat behaviour, and this just might translate to human behaviour. As said, the same receptor is found to be impaired in patients with binge eating disorder that share symptoms with those induced in the experimental rat group.
Binge eating is rather harmful behaviour, and is induced by emotions which trigger an episode of uncontrolled eating. Most patients fill themselves with junk food, further illustrating why developing a treatment to control these behavioural patterns is needed. The rat experiment shows that Sigma-1 is an interesting target to investigate in order to develop a drug to treat these patients.