The impulsive brain: Neural underpinnings of binge eating behavior in normal-weight adults

Appetite. 2019 May 1:136:33-49. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.12.043. Epub 2019 Jan 4.


Converging evidence suggests that dysfunctional inhibitory control might be at the roots of overeating and binge eating disorder (BED). The majority of these results stems from studies on obese populations, however we hypothesized that potential prodromes might be evident also in non-clinical conditions, when binge eating episodes are present (without a diagnosis of BED) and a normal Body Mass Index is preserved. To explore this issue, brain activity of 42 normal weight individuals with and without binge eating episodes (21 binge eaters and 21 non-binge eaters, BE and non-BE respectively) was assessed by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during response inhibition tasks. We adopted a food-modified version of a go/no-go (GNG) and stop signal task (SST): these tasks investigate different aspects of inhibitory control (action restraint and cancellation) that have been rarely studied in the same individuals but that are known to involve different neural networks. In addition, impulsivity traits were assessed with self-report instruments. Despite similar behavioral performances, the two groups differed in trait impulsivity and brain activity. The fMRI results revealed differential engagement of fronto-striatal regions between the groups during the tasks. The BE group, compared to non-BE, showed lower activation of the right middle frontal gyrus (MFG) and Putamen during the GNG task, and higher activation of the left MFG during the SST. These findings provide evidence of a dissociation of the neural underpinnings of action restraint and cancellation in impulsive individuals. Moreover, they add support to the hypothesis that impulsivity may be a possible hallmark of binge eating behavior (in the absence of weight or full-blown eating disorders) and yield new insights on the role of regions typically involved in response inhibition and selection as possible substrates of impulsive eating.

Keywords: Binge eating; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Go/no-go; Impulsivity; Middle frontal gyrus; Stop signal task.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Bulimia / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Young Adult