Eating disorders are multifactorial conditions that can involve a combination of genetic, metabolic, environmental, and behavioral factors. Studies in humans and laboratory animals show that eating can also be regulated by factors unrelated to metabolic control. Several studies suggest a link between stress, access to highly palatable food, and eating disorders. Eating “comfort foods” in response to a negative emotional state, for example, suggests that some individuals overeat to self-medicate. Clinical data suggest that some individuals may develop addiction-like behaviors from consuming palatable foods. Based on this observation, “food addiction” has emerged as an area of intense scientific research. A growing body of evidence suggests that some aspects of food addiction, such as compulsive eating behavior, can be modeled in animals. Moreover, several areas of the brain, including various neurotransmitter systems, are involved in the reinforcement effects of both food and drugs, suggesting that natural and pharmacological stimuli activate similar neural systems. In addition, several recent studies have identified a putative connection between neural circuits activated in the seeking and intake of both palatable food and drugs. The development of well-characterized animal models will increase our understanding of the etiological factors of food addiction and will help identify the neural substrates involved in eating disorders such as compulsive overeating. Such models will facilitate the development and validation of targeted pharmacological therapies.
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