A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that a part of the brain critical to motivation, the substantia nigra, which is famous for its role as a primary culprit in Parkinson’s Disease, is central to the relationship between feeding and drug seeking behavior.

Neuroscientists have known for some time that acquisition of drug seeking behavior is higher in people whose food supply is restricted. But nobody knew why. Neuroscientist Sarah Branch and her colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio have now discovered a critical neural mechanism that links food restriction to enhanced drug efficacy. They mildly restricted the diet of mice and found that it caused certain neurons in the substantia nigra burst in activity. These neurons, called dopamine neurons, are implicated in the feeling of pleasure felt with drugs of abuse. It’s as if the neurons are preparing to reward their owner the moment that food is found, perhaps to reinforce food acquisition. When the mice were given cocaine as well, the bursty effect in food restricted mice was enhanced even further, which leads to increased drug seeking behavior too. Interestingly, they found that the effects could persist up to ten days after the food restriction ended.

The results suggest that there may be a way to enhance drug efficacy in patients with chronic pain. But it also serves as a cogent reminder that the substantia nigra is central to how the brain generates motivational behavior. When the substantia nigra dies, you get Parkinson’s, and you find it difficult to motivate yourself to even pass through a doorway. When the substantia nigra is super charged by food restriction, or drugs, or both, you become super motivated to seek out more food, or more drugs… whatever floats the substantia nigra’s boat. So maybe that’s why people who quit their addiction tend to gain weight… perhaps they are trying to quiet their substantia nigra. The fact that the effect lasts so long after food restriction ends could explain why sort-term dieters tend to gain it all back... with a vengeance.