Drug addicts can become physically dependent on a substance to the point of overdose, and according to a new study, food cravings take hold of the brain in an eerily similar way. The findings were presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s annual conference in Amsterdam by a collaborative team of researchers from the University of Granada in Spain and Monash University in Australia.

"There is an ongoing controversy over whether obesity can be called a 'food addiction,' but in fact there is very little research which shows whether or not this might be true," said the study’s lead author Oren Contreras-Rodríguez, a cognitive psychology researcher at the University of Granada, in a press release. "Reward processing following food stimuli in obesity is associated with neural changes similar to those found in substance addiction."

The research team laid out a buffet of food for 39 obese and 42 normal-weight participants. They let them eat what they wanted before evaluating each person in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) machine. The brain scans revealed food cravings affected obese participants’ neural connections in the brain differently than those who were considered a normal weight.

Obese individuals had a stronger connection between their dorsal caudate (responsible for reward-based habits) and somatosensory cortex (responsible for measuring the energy value of food, such as calories). Meanwhile, normal-weight individuals had a stronger connection between the ventral putamen (responsible for evaluating flavors) and the orbitofrontal cortex (responsible for decision making). With this data, researchers were able to predict which obese individuals would gain weight three months later based on how strong of a connection there was between their dorsal caudate and somatosensory cortex.

These are the same neural changes researchers have seen play out in a drug addict’s brain. Past research has shown how cocaine and sugar play out in nearly identical ways in the brain. The most recent study in 2013 found that lab rats became addicted to Oreos in an alarmingly similar way to cocaine, leading researchers to believe food addiction is one of the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of adults in America are obese, with childhood obesity rates trailing closely behind; the CDC reported the number of obese children has tripled in the last 30 years.

Food addiction may pose a more dangerous threat to public health, because unlike heroin, a box of Oreos isn’t illegal. One of the study’s co-authors said in a statement, "Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat/ high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability."

By measuring a person’s connective strength between two areas of the brain, researchers may be able to predict who is struggling with food addiction. However, Contreras-Rodríguez explains this phenomenon needs to be viewed as an association between food craving behavior and brain changes. Further research must be conducted before the research team can establish a cause and effect link.

“These findings provide potential brain biomarkers which we can use to help manage obesity,” Contreras-Rodríguez said. “For example, through pharmacotherapies and brain stimulation techniques that might help control food intake in clinical situations.”

Source: Contreras-Rodríguez O et al. 28th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress. 2015.