There's A Reason You Can't Stop Reaching Into The Candy Jar, According To Scientists
Oh, Halloween—the one night of the year where there seems to be candy and sweets everywhere you turn. Even if you don't normally have intense chocolate cravings, there's something about the holiday that inspires you to indulge in a cheeky treat (or two, or three, or four...).
Well, according to researchers at the University of Southern California, there may be a scientific reason you keep reaching into the candy jar, even if you aren't necessarily craving any sugar. The urge may have nothing to do with your taste buds and everything to do with your neurons.
Researchers studied what's known as a melanin-concentrating hormone (MCH), which has been previously linked to people's appetite for food or drugs. However, these scientists wanted to discover if MCH had anything to do with impulse control—impulsivity has previously been associated with excessive food intake and weight gain, but MCH's role in regulating impulsivity had been unknown.
They conducted a number of experiments on rats, who received high-fat, high-carb treats ("little doughnut holes" the researchers deemed them—pretty similar to what we would consider a Halloween-inspired dessert). In one task, the rats could press a lever and receive the doughnut hole, the caveat being, it would have to wait 20 seconds to successfully press the lever and receive another one. If the rat pressed the lever before the 20 seconds were done, the clock would reset.
The rats became impatient and would hit the lever long before the time had passed, which only delayed the wait time even more for the next treat. Sound familiar to any temper tantrums you might have experienced (either with your children or with your own frustrations, no judgments here)?
In another experiment, the rats had a choice between two levers: One that would release an immediate single treat and one that would release a batch of five treats every 30 to 45 seconds. Unsurprisingly, these rats would press the lever for the single treat more frequently than the other lever, even though the latter would've delivered way more food.
"They don't just sit there and wait," lead researcher Scott Kanoski, Ph.D., describes the rats. "They worked harder to achieve the same, or even fewer, number of pellets."
In this case, the instant gratification outweighed the desire for more treats, similar to how you might unwrap another Twix bar from the comfort of your own couch rather than take the time to bake a nutritious, keto-friendly dessert.
When the scientists analyzed the rats' brain scans, they were able to discover a neural pathway that was associated with their impulse control. Here's what they found: Neurons in the lateral hypothalamus region of the brain signaled MCH to other neurons in the ventral hippocampus—an area of the brain that's associated with emotions, memory, and inhibitory control, meaning, the levels of MCH in the brain are significant for regulating impulsivity and are separate from hunger or food motivation.
Responding without thinking about the consequences of your actions isn't only associated with sticking your hand in the candy bowl one too many times—impulsivity is also correlated to many psychiatric disorders, including drug addiction, excessive gambling, ADHD, and Parkinson's disease. That said, this study can help researchers get to the bottom of what's really causing a lack of impulse control and possibly develop treatments for people with these disorders.
So the next time you find yourself endlessly indulging in treats (maybe tonight?), don't blame your sweet tooth—your MCH levels may be what's dictating your impulsive munching.
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