A brain implant could become a new tool for treating obesity in patients unresponsive to traditional medications. A new study at the University of Pennsylvania found that by treating mice using a specially tuned brain pacemaker — a device that sends electrical signals to specific areas of the brain — behaviors such as binge-eating could be significantly inhibited. Though the trial was only performed on animals, the study's lead author is optimistic about its translation to humans. He explained in a statement, "Once replicated in human clinical trials, [the method] could rapidly become a treatment for people with obesity."
The technique is a type of deep brain stimulation, and in this application involves targeting a small structure in the brain that controls pleasure and reward. The stimulation is a suppression technique, not a "cure," and it helps to regulate factors that lead people to overeat. Deep brain stimulation is already used to treat Parkinson's disease, and researchers are now trying to determine if it can be used in other situations, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anorexia. However, such treatments are a permanent option and must remain implanted in the patient. In the obesity study, the mice's earlier overeating behaviors returned after the pacemakers were removed.