Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Anyone who has ever had a bad habit knows how vexingly difficult breaking it can be. The reason is the repeated action, initially linked to some type of real or perceived reward, over time changes the way our very brains are wired to work. The bad habit becomes automatic, even when the action does us harm or we no longer wish to do it.
Now an intriguing new study shows that the same bundled nerve fibers, or brain circuits, involved in habit formation also can go awry in people with eating disorders. The findings may help to explain why eating disorders are so often resistant to will power alone. They also may help to point the way to improved approaches to treating eating disorders, suggesting strategies that adjust the actual brain circuitry in helpful ways.
These latest findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, come from the NIH-supported Casey Halpern, University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia, and Cara Bohon, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA .
Halpern, Bohon, and colleagues were interested in a growing body of evidence linking habitual behaviors to mental health conditions, most notably substance use disorders and addictions. But what especially intrigued them was recent evidence also suggesting a possible role for habitual behaviors in the emergence of eating disorders.
To look deeper into the complex circuitry underlying habit formation and any changes there that might be associated with eating disorders, they took advantage of a vast collection of data from the NIH-funded Human Connectome Project (HCP). It was completed several years ago and now serves as a valuable online resource for researchers.
The HCP offers a detailed wiring map of a normal human brain. It describes all the structural and functional neural connections based on careful analyses of hundreds of high-resolution brain scans. These connections are then layered with genetic, behavioral, and other types of data. This incredible map now allows researchers to explore and sometimes uncover the roots of neurological and mental health conditions within the brain’s many trillions of connections.
In the new study, Halpern, Bohon, and colleagues did just that. First, they used sophisticated mapping methods in 178 brain scans from the HCP data to locate key portions of a brain region called the striatum, which is thought to be involved in habit formation. What they really wanted to know was whether circuits operating within the striatum were altered in some way in people with binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.
To find out, the researchers recruited 34 women who have an eating disorder and, with their consent, imaged their brains using a variety of techniques. Twenty-one participants were diagnosed with binge eating disorder, and 13 had bulimia nervosa. For comparison purposes, the researchers looked at the same brain circuits in 19 healthy volunteers.
The two groups were otherwise similar in terms of their ages, weights, and other features. But the researchers suspected they might find differences between the healthy group and those with an eating disorder in brain circuits known to have links to habitual behaviors. And, indeed, they did.
In comparison to a “typical” brain, those from people with an eating disorder showed striking changes in the connectivity of a portion of the striatum known as the putamen. That’s especially notable because the putamen is known for its role in learning and movement control, including reward, thinking, and addiction. What’s more, those observed changes in the brain’s connections and circuitry in this key brain area were more evident in people whose eating disorder symptoms and emotional eating were more frequent and severe.
Using other brain imaging methods in 10 of the volunteers (eight with binge eating disorder and two healthy controls), the researchers also connected those changes in the habit-forming brain circuits to high levels of a protein receptor that responds to dopamine. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger in the brain involved in pleasure, motivation, and learning. They also observed in those with eating disorders structural changes in the architecture of the densely folded, outer layer of the brain known as grey matter.
While there’s much more to learn, the researchers note the findings may lead to future treatments aimed to modify the brain circuitry in beneficial ways. Indeed, Halpern already has encouraging early results from a small NIH-funded clinical trial testing the ability of deep brain stimulation (DBS) in people with binge eating disorder to disrupt signals that drive food cravings in another portion of the brain associated with reward and motivation, known as the nucleus accumbens, . In DBS, doctors implant a pacemaker-like device capable of delivering harmless therapeutic electrical impulses deep into the brain, aiming for the spot where they can reset the abnormal circuitry that’s driving eating disorders or other troubling symptoms or behaviors.
But the latest findings published in Science Translational Medicine now suggest other mapped brain circuits as potentially beneficial DBS targets for tackling binge eating, bulimia nervosa, or other life-altering, hard-to-treat eating disorders. They also may ultimately have implications for treating other conditions involving various other forms of compulsive behavior.
These findings should come as a source of hope for the family and friends of the millions of Americans—many of them young people—who struggle with eating disorders. The findings also serve as an important reminder for the rest of us that, despite common misconceptions that disordered eating is a lifestyle choice, these conditions are in fact complex and serious mental health problems driven by fundamental changes in the brain’s underlying circuitry.
Finding new and more effective ways to treat serious eating disorders and other compulsive behaviors is a must. It will require equally serious ongoing efforts to unravel their underlying causes and find ways to alter their course—and this new study is an encouraging step in that direction.
 Human habit neural circuitry may be perturbed in eating disorders. Wang AR, Kuijper FM, Barbosa DAN, Hagan KE, Lee E, Tong E, Choi EY, McNab JA, Bohon C, Halpern CH. Sci Transl Med. 2023 Mar 29;15(689):eabo4919.
 Pilot study of responsive nucleus accumbens deep brain stimulation for loss-of-control eating. Shivacharan RS, Rolle CE, Barbosa DAN, Cunningham TN, Feng A, Johnson ND, Safer DL, Bohon C, Keller C, Buch VP, Parker JJ, Azagury DE, Tass PA, Bhati MT, Malenka RC, Lock JD, Halpern CH. Nat Med. 2022 Sep;28(9):1791-1796.
Eating Disorders (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Casey Halpern (Penn Medicine, Philadelphia)
Cara Bohon (Stanford University, Stanford, CA)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
One of life’s greatest mysteries is the brain’s ability to encode something as complex as human behavior. In an effort to begin to unravel this mystery, neuroscientists often zoom in to record the activities of individual neurons. Sometimes they expand their view to look at a specific region of the brain. But if they zoom out farther, neuroscientists can observe many thousands of neurons across the entire brain firing at once to produce electrical oscillations that somehow translate into behaviors as distinct as a smile and a frown. The complexity is truly daunting.
Rainbo Hultman, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, realized years ago that by zooming out and finding a way to map all those emergent signals, she could help to change the study of brain function fundamentally. She also realized doing so offered her an opportunity to chip away at cracking the complicated code of the electrical oscillations that translate into such complex behaviors. To pursue her work in this emerging area of “electrical connectomics,” Hultman recently received a 2020 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to study the most common human neurological disorder: migraine headaches.
A few years ago, Hultman made some impressive progress in electrical connectomics as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Kafui Dzirasa at Duke University, Durham, NC. Hultman and her colleagues refined a way to use electrodes to collect electrical field potentials across an unprecedented seven separate mouse brain regions at once. Using machine learning to help make sense of all the data, they uncovered a dynamic, yet reproducible, electrical brain network encoding depression .
What’s more, they found that the specific features of this brain-wide network could predict which mice subjected to chronic stress would develop signs of major depressive disorder. As Hultman noted, when measured and mapped in this way, the broad patterns of electrical brain activity, or “Electome factors,” could indicate which mice were vulnerable to stress and which were more resilient.
Moving on to her latest area of research, Hultman is especially intrigued by the fact that people who endure regular migraine attacks often pass through a characteristic sequence of symptoms. These symptoms can include a painful headache on one side of the head; visual disturbances; sensitivity to light, odors, or sound; mood changes; nausea; trouble speaking; and sometimes even paralysis. By studying the broad electrical patterns and networks associated with migraine in mice—simultaneously capturing electrical recordings from 14 brain regions on a millisecond timescale—she wants to understand how brain circuits are linked and work together in ways that produce the complex sequences of migraine symptoms.
More broadly, Hultman wants to understand how migraine and many other disorders affecting the brain lead to a state of heightened sensory sensitivity and how that emerges from integrated neural circuits in the brain. In her studies of migraine, the researcher suspects she might observe some of the same patterns seen earlier in depression. In fact, her team is setting up its experiments to ensure it can identify any brain network features that are shared across important disease states.
By the way, I happen to be one of many people who suffer from migraines, although fortunately not very often in my case. The visual aura of flashing jagged images that starts in the center of my visual field and then gradually moves to the periphery over about 20 minutes is pretty dramatic—a free light show! I’ve wondered what the electrical component of that must be like. But, even with treatment, the headache that follows can be pretty intense.
Hultman also has seen in her own life and family how debilitating migraines can be. Her goal isn’t just to map these neural networks, but to use them to identify where to target future therapeutics. Ultimately, she hopes her work will pave the way for more precise approaches for treating migraine and other brain disorders that are based on the emergent electrical characteristics of each individual’s brain activity. It’s a fascinating proposition, and I certainly look forward to where this research leads and what it may reveal about the fundamentals of how our brains encode complex behaviors and emotions.
 Brain-wide electrical spatiotemporal dynamics encode depression vulnerability. Hultman R, Ulrich K, Sachs BD, Blount C, Carlson DE, Ndubuizu N, Bagot RC, Parise EM, Vu MT, Gallagher NM, Wang J, Silva AJ, Deisseroth K, Mague SD, Caron MG, Nestler EJ, Carin L, Dzirasa K. Cell. 2018 Mar 22;173(1):166-180.e14.
Migraine Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Laboratory for Brain-Network Based Molecular Medicine (University of Iowa, Iowa City)
Hultman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
All of us make many decisions every day. For most things, such as which jacket to wear or where to grab a cup of coffee, there’s usually no right answer, so we often decide using values rooted in our past experiences. Now, neuroscientists have identified the part of the mammalian brain that stores information essential to such value-based decision making.
Researchers zeroed in on this particular brain region, known as the retrosplenial cortex (RSC), by analyzing movies—including the clip shown about 32 seconds into this video—that captured in real time what goes on in the brains of mice as they make decisions. Each white circle is a neuron, and the flickers of light reflect their activity: the brighter the light, the more active the neuron at that point in time.
All told, the NIH-funded team, led by Ryoma Hattori and Takaki Komiyama, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, made recordings of more than 45,000 neurons across six regions of the mouse brain . Neural activity isn’t usually visible. But, in this case, researchers used mice that had been genetically engineered so that their neurons, when activated, expressed a protein that glowed.
Their system was also set up to encourage the mice to make value-based decisions, including choosing between two drinking tubes, each with a different probability of delivering water. During this decision-making process, the RSC proved to be the region of the brain where neurons persistently lit up, reflecting how the mouse evaluated one option over the other.
The new discovery, described in the journal Cell, comes as something of a surprise to neuroscientists because the RSC hadn’t previously been implicated in value-based decisions. To gather additional evidence, the researchers turned to optogenetics, a technique that enabled them to use light to inactivate neurons in the RSC’s of living animals. These studies confirmed that, with the RSC turned off, the mice couldn’t retrieve value information based on past experience.
The researchers note that the RSC is heavily interconnected with other key brain regions, including those involved in learning, memory, and controlling movement. This indicates that the RSC may be well situated to serve as a hub for storing value information, allowing it to be accessed and acted upon when it is needed.
The findings are yet another amazing example of how advances coming out of the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative are revolutionizing our understanding of the brain. In the future, the team hopes to learn more about how the RSC stores this information and sends it to other parts of the brain. They note that it will also be important to explore how activity in this brain area may be altered in schizophrenia, dementia, substance abuse, and other conditions that may affect decision-making abilities. It will also be interesting to see how this develops during childhood and adolescence.
 Area-Specificity and Plasticity of History-Dependent Value Coding During Learning. Hattori R, Danskin B, Babic Z, Mlynaryk N, Komiyama T. Cell. 2019 Jun 13;177(7):1858-1872.e15.
Komiyama Lab (UCSD, La Jolla)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Eye Institute; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Neuroscientists have been working for a long time to figure out how the human brain works, and that has led many through the years to attempt to map its various regions and create a detailed atlas of their complex geography and functions. While great progress has been made in recent years, existing brain maps have remained relatively blurry and incomplete, reflecting only limited aspects of brain structure or function and typically in just a few people.
In a study reported recently in the journal Nature, an NIH-funded team of researchers has begun to bring this map of the human brain into much sharper focus . By combining multiple types of cutting-edge brain imaging data from more than 200 healthy young men and women, the researchers were able to subdivide the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer, into 180 specific areas in each hemisphere. Remarkably, almost 100 of those areas had never before been described. This new high-resolution brain map will advance fundamental understanding of the human brain and will help to bring greater precision to the diagnosis and treatment of many brain disorders.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
This colorful cylinder could pass for some sort of modern art sculpture, but it actually represents a sneak peak at some of the remarkable science that we can look forward to seeing from the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. In a recent study in the journal Cell , NIH grantee Jeff Lichtman of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA and his colleagues unveiled the first digitized reconstruction of tissue from the mammalian cerebral cortex—the outermost part of the brain, responsible for complex behaviors.
Specifically, Lichtman’s group mapped in exquisite detail a very small cube of a mouse’s cerebral cortex. In fact, the cube is so tiny (smaller than a grain of sand!) that it contained no whole cells, just a profoundly complex tangle of finger-like nerve cell extensions called axons and dendrites. And what you see in this video is just one cylindrical portion of that tissue sample, in which Licthtman and colleagues went full force to identify and label every single cellular and intracellular element. The message-sending axons are delineated in an array of pastel colors, while more vivid hues of red, green, and purple mark the message-receiving dendrites and bright yellow indicates the nerve-insulating glia. In total, the cylinder contains parts of about 600 axons, 40 different dendrites, and 500 synapses, where nerve impulses are transmitted between cells.