Research Press Release

Neuroscience: Neuromarker for drug and food cravings identified

Nature Neuroscience

December 20, 2022

A neuroimaging signature that can be used to predict the intensity of drug and food cravings is reported in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience.

Cravings to use drugs or to eat are considered driving factors for substance use or overeating. Cravings induced by drug- or food-related stimuli may be used to help predict drug use and relapse, unhealthy eating and weight gain. However, the neural basis of cravings in humans is not fully understood.

Leonie Koban, Tor Wager, and Hedy Kober identified a neuromarker, or a biological indicator, that predicted the intensity of drug and food cravings among users of nicotine, alcohol and cocaine alongside matched controls. Across 3 functional MRI studies, 99 participants viewing pictures of drugs and highly palatable food items, such as a stack of pancakes, were cued to consider either the immediate positive consequences of consuming the pictured item, or the negative consequences of repeated consumption. They also rated how much they craved the item. The authors then applied machine learning to the neuroimaging data to identify a Neurobiological Craving Signature (NCS), which included several brain regions whose activity could be used to predict either higher or lower levels of craving.

The NCS had high accuracy in predicting the intensity of cravings for both drugs and food. Moreover, from the NCS responses recorded for the participants to drug and food cues, the authors were able to identify users of drugs versus non-users. The authors also found that the NCS responses to food images predicted the intensity of cravings for drugs and vice versa, which may suggest that food and drug cravings share neural pathways.

The authors conclude that the identification of the NCS offers a potential target for developing clinical interventions for the treatment of cravings and in improving existing ones.


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