Can’t stop munching on Halloween candy or office snacks? This might be why

A new study suggests a link between a circuit in the brain and impulsive behavior, either eating or something else

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Free snacks around the office can be abundant this time of year, from Halloween candy to treats for holiday parties. And it’s no secret that the indulgences don’t bring many nutritional benefits.

Last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found Americans were adding as much as 1,300 calories to their weekly diet through office grazing.

But whether it’s at work or home, a new study suggests a link between a circuit in the brain and impulsive behavior, either eating or something else.

Basically, a hormone in the hypothalamus portion of the brain, called Melanin-concentrating hormone, or MCH, was previously associated with appetite, but hadn’t been linked to impulse control until this study.

"We discovered the brain connections that keep impulsivity in check," said research Scott Kanoski. "The key to this system is a neuropeptide that we've been focusing on, melanin-concentrating hormone, in studies on appetite and eating."

The University of Southern California researchers, who conducted a series of studies on rats, determined that impulsive behavior and hunger are separate functions in the brain.

The researchers presented the rats with two tasks. In one task, the rat was given the option to press a lever and receive a treat every 20 seconds. In another, the rats were given the option of two levers, one gave an immediate, single treat, while the other gave a batch of treats, but on a timed release, according to the study.

The research revealed that the rats favored the immediate gratification of a single treat, even though waiting 30-45 seconds could have yielded much more food.

Kanoski said altering the levels of MCH in the rats’ brains did not affect the results the way they had predicted.

"We would drive the system up, and then we would see the animals be more impulsive," Kanoski said. "And if we reduced function we thought they would be less impulsive, but instead we found that they were more so. Either way, they had elevated impulsivity."

Now, researchers plan to look at the link between the brain circuit and the brain’s reward system, Kanoski said, who said that could help develop treatments for disorders linked to impulsivity.