Six morbidly obese people have agreed to take part in a trial aimed at controlling binge eating and improving their health.
The test subjects will be implanted with a microchip, known as a responsive neurostimulation system (RNS), which was developed by medical technology company NeuroPace, originally to treat people with epilepsy.
Once implanted, it continuously records brain activity and delivers a mild electric shock whenever it detects a specific pattern of activity that signals the onset of a seizure.
This shock is designed to stop the seizure before it begins, and a study apparently found that the same technique could be used to suppress binge-eating in mice.
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Stanford University researchers now want to explore whether or not it could also work on humans who suffer from “loss-of-control eating”.
The clinical trial will take place over five years and the participants will have the chips implanted in their brains for at least 18 months at a time.
The chip will monitor brain activity for six months before the electric stimulation is activated. It is believed that this will help to identify the pattern of activity that signals the start of binge eating.
The researchers said their primary goal is to discover if such a procedure is safe and, in turn, if it can then be effective.
Only people with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 45 and who had not lost weight from gastric bypass surgery – or cognitive behavioural therapy – are eligible to take part in the trial. The researchers said that the procedure is not intended for people who only need or want to lose a small amount of weight.
Stanford’s Dr Casey Halpern said: “These are patients who are essentially dying of their obesity.”
Halpern’s work focuses on an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, also known as the brain’s pleasure centre, involved in the feelings of reward and addiction.
Dana Small, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale University, who is not involved in the study, commented: “There is a lot of evidence to suggest the nucleus accumbens is an important target.
“There are many studies looking at brain response to food cues, and the nucleus accumbens is very frequently activated and associated with all kinds of factors that are associated with risk for overeating or developing obesity.”
The difficulty will be in separating the brain’s response to fatty foods from its response to healthy foods, and from other feelings of reward, according to the researchers. They said they are also concerned that the electric stimulation could lead to a general loss of interest in all things among test subjects, with a potential inability to experience pleasure that could cause depression.