MAR 28, 2018 7:06 AM PDT

Can Freezing Nerves That Signal Hunger Treat Obesity?

In many medical conditions that can cause chronic pain, there are treatments that involve either burning or freezing specific nerves that carry pain signals to the brain. Nerves can be ablated with radio frequency waves, high temperatures or certain kinds of cryogenic procedures.

A small study from researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, suggests that freezing the nerves that carry hunger signals to the brain could help patients who are dealing with mild to moderate obesity. It's only in the very early stages of development, but the study will be presented at the Society of Interventional Radiology's 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting. The initial phase of the trial only ascertained that the treatment is safe and feasible, but the plan is to continue to investigate it. 

David Prologo, M.D., FSIR, ABOM-D is an interventional radiologist from Emory University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study. He explained in a press release, "We developed this treatment for patients with mild-to-moderate obesity to reduce the attrition that is common with weight-loss efforts. We are trying to help people succeed with their own attempts to lose weight."Interventional radiology is a field of medicine where imaging is used not only to diagnose but to treat conditions as well. The freezing procedure studied in the research is done using live images captured with a CT scan. A radiologist inserts a needle into the patient's back and with the help of CT images, guides the wire to a specific nerve called the posterior vagal trunk. It's found right around the base of the esophagus, and it's instrumental in letting the brain know that the stomach is empty, and once that signal is relayed, hunger begins. 

The study only had 10 participants, so the results need to be looked at in the context of a very small sample group. The patients all had a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 30 and 37. After undergoing the procedure, they were followed for 90 days. The study authors reported that there were no complications from the process and no adverse events. Weight loss averaged about 3.6% of each participant's starting weight, and the average decrease in BMI was about 14%. 

Dr. Prologo explained that the body's response to hunger is an evolutionary response, meant to ensure that humans will seek food and survive. That's not necessary for modern life, however. Prolongo stated, "Medical literature shows the vast majority of weight-loss programs fail, especially when people attempt to reduce their food intake. When our stomachs are empty, the body senses this and switches to food-seeking survival mode. We're not trying to eliminate this biological response, only reduce the strength of this signal to the brain to provide a new, sustainable solution to the difficult problem of treating mild obesity."

Since the procedure has been shown to be safe and feasible, the next step is to get a larger sample group and collect more data. Prologo and his team acknowledge that the study has some limitations including the sample size and the fact that it was funded by HealthTronics, the company that makes the ablation device used. It's not a cure for obesity but could help some patients get healthier. Check out the video to learn more about it. 

Sources: Society of Interventional Radiology, UPI, ABC News

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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