The contribution of brain reward circuits to the obesity epidemic

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Nov;37(9 Pt A):2047-58. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.12.001. Epub 2012 Dec 10.


One of the defining characteristics of the research of Ann E. Kelley was her recognition that the neuroscience underlying basic learning and motivation processes also shed significant light upon mechanisms underlying drug addiction and maladaptive eating patterns. In this review, we examine the parallels that exist in the neural pathways that process both food and drug reward, as determined by recent studies in animal models and human neuroimaging experiments. We discuss contemporary research that suggests that hyperphagia leading to obesity is associated with substantial neurochemical changes in the brain. These findings verify the relevance of reward pathways for promoting consumption of palatable, calorically dense foods, and lead to the important question of whether changes in reward circuitry in response to intake of such foods serve a causal role in the development and maintenance of some cases of obesity. Finally, we discuss the potential value for future studies at the intersection of the obesity epidemic and the neuroscience of motivation, as well as the potential concerns that arise from viewing excessive food intake as an "addiction". We suggest that it might be more useful to focus on overeating that results in frank obesity, and multiple health, interpersonal, and occupational negative consequences as a form of food "abuse".

Keywords: Drug addiction; Feeding; Food abuse; Food addiction; Mesolimbic dopamine system; Obesity; Opioids; Reinforcement; Reward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Reward*