Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

Become a Health and Happiness Addict

Overwriting self-demoting neurosignatures

The brain uses complex patterns of nerve cell firings and chemical releases to represent sensory experiences, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, memories and imagination called neurosignatures.1,2 Every human life-event is associated with its unique and distinct neurosignature.1 Understanding how neurosignatures work is key in understanding the challenges compulsive and emotional eaters face. 

There are two types of neurosignatures: top-down and bottom-up.1 In bottom-up neurosignatures, your five senses cause various ligands (think of them as specific keys), to insert themselves (chemo taxis) into specific matching locks on the surface of the cell (receptor sites).3 Biochemists call this binding. Thus, binding-status describes which keys are in which locks at a given time. Binding-status initiates the processes that send signals from sensory receptors to the brain, where they blend with accumulative thought, memory and feeling.1,2,4,5  This process causes a unique and distinct pattern of nerve cell firing and chemical release, which creates a distinct and unique neurosignature. Neuroscientists call this type of neurosignature creation bottom-up because external cues travels from the body up to the brain.1 Top-down is the second way we create neurosignatures. This occurs when one imagines or recalls an event. Neuroscientists call these top-down neurosignatures because they travel from the brain down to the human body. Top-down neurosignatures cause the release of chemical messenger molecules and nerve cell firing patterns that change the binding status of ligands and receptors on the surface of the cell.3 Thus, metaphorically speaking, the brain reaches down and puts different keys in different locks.

Good News and Bad News

Creating a neurosignature is similar to drawing a line on a piece of paper in ink. Thus, you cannot erase a neurosignature.1 However, you can overwrite one in the same manner one might change an upper case cursive “D” into a “B.”  Furthermore, once your brain creates a neurosignature for an event, every time it experiences another event that is similar or reminiscent of the original event, it creates a new distinct neurosignature.1 Not only that, it evokes the original neurosignature as well, making it more robust. Now think in terms of the ink lines on the paper. If the ink line on the paper is a negative behavior or traumatic event, the more robust it becomes, the harder it becomes to overwrite. Hence, eventually, it may become impossible to turn that “D” into a “B.”

In addition, research has found that the human body cannot tell the difference between a real event and a vividly imagined event.6-9 Thus, whether the neurosignature is top-down or bottom-up, the pattern of nerve cell firing and chemical release is similar. Dr. Kosslyn and colleagues found that there were no differences between regional brain activation of subjects in response to actual or vividly imagined events in a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) study.6 This demonstrates how powerful neurosignatures are in dictating how the human mind and body influence each other. 

This is potentially good and/or bad. On a positive note, you can use mindfulness to overwrite negative neurosignatures, by continuously re-creating positive top-down neurosignatures. On the bad side, people with self-demoting behaviors are more likely to strengthen negative neurosignatures more so than overwrite them.10-13

For example, compulsive overeaters report more early life trauma than normal eaters do.11,14-16 Every time a person experiences an event that is identical, similar or reminiscent of his or her early life trauma, he or she relives that early life trauma exponentially in the creation of a new neurosignature and the thickening of older ones. We know the brain prefers familiarity. For example, abused children often choose abusive adult situations because the change-resistant brain is more comfortable with a familiar abusive environment than an unfamiliar healthy one.17 Likewise, the underlying behaviors that drive compulsive eating are more desirable to our brains because they are familiar. What is the solution?

Seemingly, the solution is proactive creation of healthy top-down neurosignatures. Intuitively, this would begin as goal-directed behaviors projected from the pre-frontal cortex (your thoughts), to the dorsal striatum (part of the reward circuitry) and repetition would result in healthier stimulus-response behaviors in dorsal striatum. Regrettably, compulsive overeaters seldom think their way out of self-demoting behaviors.18,19 However, we may be able to party our way out. Say what?

Unlike the prefrontal cortex, when the ventral striatum generates goal-directed behavior, dopamine releases, making the dorsal striatum more likely to repeat the action in the future.20-23 This is because both the ventral and dorsal striatum love dopamine (the brain’s happy dance drug).24-26 However, in the dorsal striatum, dopamine initiates action, but in the ventral striatum, it signals reward.21,27 That is because the nucleus accumbens, the capital of the brain’s reward system lies in the ventral striatum. The nucleus accumbens is addiction’s hometown.28-32

Incentive salience, your brain’s reward utility, is the key component of addiction.33-35 It works by using sensory cues, associated with memory or imagination, to motivate you to want to do something based on anticipating the reward of doing it. For example, imagining the reward of food, makes you want to eat, and thereby signals the impending reward of eating, causing dopamine release and structural and functional brain alterations. 36-42

Changing the brain by overwriting negative neurosignatures is the goal. Thus, the solution is difficultly simple. The simple part is appealing to the dorsal striatum via the ventral striatum as opposed to via your prefrontal cortex. 

Meaning, find healthy things you do not have to think you should do, but rather cannot wait to do because you enjoy them, subsequently making them a party. This will cause dopamine release in the ventral and dorsal striatum and you will become addicted to that behavior because that is how the neurobiology of addiction unfolds in the brain.43-48 You get more dopamine from wanting to do something than actually doing it, so you are always wanting to do it, and of course subsequently doing it. For example, if you do not like the gym, maybe you like to dance. Then forget the gym and go boogie. The difficult part is finding your healthy party behaviors. However, they are there, but only you can find them. Of course, that means paying more attention to yourself and your truths than to other people and society’s truths. Remain fabulous and phenomenal. 

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is  Co-Investigator in the  Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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