Obesity breakthrough? Brain signals reveal why men and women gain weight differently

LOS ANGELES — Personalized male and female anti-obesity pills could be on the horizon, a new study explains. Scientists from UCLA have discovered “sex specific” brain signals that cause men and women to eat too much.

The team combined data from MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans with patients’ clinical features and individual histories to reach these findings.

“We found differences in several of the brain’s networks associated with early life adversity, mental health quality, and the way sensory stimulation is experienced. The resulting brain signatures, based on multimodal MRI imaging, may help us more precisely tailor obesity interventions based on an individual’s sex,” says senior author Arpana Gupta, PhD, a brain, obesity, and microbiome researcher at UCLA, in a media release.

The first study of its kind could provide new insight into why women are more likely to be obese. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American women had a higher prevalence of severe obesity (11.5%) than men (6.9%) as of 2018.

Previous research by the same team found emotion-related and compulsive eating appear to play a major role in obesity in women. Men’s eating behavior tends to be affected by a greater awareness of gut sensations and visceral responses – those related to abdominal discomfort.

obesity obese man belly fat
(Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash)

What triggers weight gain in men and women?

The latest results reveal differences in brain structure, function, and connectivity. For example, alterations in certain neuronal networks suggest women with a high BMI (body mass index) have stronger cravings for highly processed foods — such as burgers, ice cream, cookies, and cakes.

“In designing treatment plans for females with high BMI, it may be important to focus on emotional regulation techniques and vulnerability factors,” Dr. Gupta says.

The 183 people taking part in the study were between the ages of 18 and 55 and almost half were obese. They filled out a battery of questionnaires assessing childhood trauma, anxiety and depression, visceral sensitivity, food addiction, bowel symptoms, personality traits, and many other factors. Each participant also underwent three different brain MRIs to assess structure, function, and connectivity.

Study authors analyzed data sets from the three scans and from clinical information using an analytical tool that seeks to identify a limited number of variables from multiple data sets to predict an outcome. The results show specific network connectivity changes associated with high BMI, regardless of sex. In women, the study identified brain regions and networks with alterations associated with early life trauma.

These appear consistent with previous observations that obese women, compared to males, may have greater anxiety, lower levels of resilience, and difficulty integrating emotions with action-directed goal planning. Women also may be more susceptible to the sight, smell, and taste of ultra-processed foods.

“Although causality is unknown, the strong associations between clinical markers, such as anxiety, depression, obesity and neural signatures suggest the importance of the bidirectional mechanistic connection of the gut-brain axis,” the study authors conclude.

The study is published in the journal Brain Communications.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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