Here we review the emerging neurobiological understanding of the role of the brain's reward system in the regulation of body weight in health and in disease. Common obesity is characterized by the over-consumption of palatable/rewarding foods, reflecting an imbalance in the relative importance of hedonic versus homeostatic signals. The popular 'incentive salience theory' of food reward recognises not only a hedonic/pleasure component ('liking') but also an incentive motivation component ('wanting' or 'reward-seeking'). Central to the neurobiology of the reward mechanism is the mesoaccumbal dopamine system that confers incentive motivation not only for natural rewards such as food but also by artificial rewards (eg. addictive drugs). Indeed, this mesoaccumbal dopamine system receives and integrates information about the incentive (rewarding) value of foods with information about metabolic status. Problematic over-eating likely reflects a changing balance in the control exerted by hypothalamic versus reward circuits and/or it could reflect an allostatic shift in the hedonic set point for food reward. Certainly, for obesity to prevail, metabolic satiety signals such as leptin and insulin fail to regain control of appetitive brain networks, including those involved in food reward. On the other hand, metabolic control could reflect increased signalling by the stomach-derived orexigenic hormone, ghrelin. We have shown that ghrelin activates the mesoaccumbal dopamine system and that central ghrelin signalling is required for reward from both chemical drugs (eg alcohol) and also from palatable food. Future therapies for problematic over-eating and obesity may include drugs that interfere with incentive motivation, such as ghrelin antagonists.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism