Emory doctors freeze 'hunger' nerve for weight loss

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Melissa Donovan, an Emory Johns Creek nurse and single mother of two, used to feel like the queen of the yo-yo diet. She'd go on a diet, make some progress, then regain the weight.

"I can lose the weight, I know how to strategically do it and lose the weight, but it bounces right back up," Donovan says.

As a nurse, Donovan is surrounded by food at work, much of it unhealthy.

"I even put a sign up one day in the break room that said, 'Quit feeding us.  Like, seriously!  Quit feeding us," she laughs.

The problem? Weight loss researchers say the odds are against us when we try to lose weight.

That is because our brain has a set point for our weight that it wants us to stay at, even if we're overweight. If we drop below that weight, the brain begins to bombard us with messages that we are starving and need to eat. Dr. David Prologo, an interventional radiologist at the Emory School of Medicine, says dieters get caught in a cycle of cutting back, losing weight, and then gaining it all back.

"So the typical course of a diet is that we start, we go for a short amount of time, and then we give up and go back to the beginning, and go back to the beginning."

To break that cycle, Dr. Prologo and his team are testing an experimental procedure to freeze a nerve, known as the posterior vagal trunk, that carries hunger signals to the brain, triggering dieters to crave food.

"When the stomach gets empty and the calories are restricted, this nerve sends signals to the brain to induce food-seeking behavior, telling us to survive," Prologo says.

Researchers enrolled 10 overweight volunteers, who agreed to be sedated while Dr. Prologo and his team used a CT scan to guide a small needle to a point along the vagus nerve, where the esophagus meets the stomach. Then, they used gas to freeze the tip of the needle, and the surrounding nerve tissue, shutting off the hunger signals it sends for 8 to 12 months before the nerve regenerates.

But, that means another procedure down the road, right?

"No," Prologo says. "So. this is the epicenter of the entire idea of this study.

What this does is open up a window for folks to stay on their diet long enough to get to that critical point where their habits catch and their life is changed."

Melissa Donovan was the first to sign up for the study. She says there was no pain or downtime with the procedure.

"So I didn't think anything had happened," she says.

But, gradually, the cravings stopped, and she found it easier to stay on track with her diet.

In 9 months, she's lost 28 pounds, just under a pound a week.

"I feel empowered," Donovan says.  "It's slow, it's slow and steady.  I'm a work in progress.  But I haven't rebounded."

This study presented at the Society of Interventional Radiology's 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting, was small, involving just 10 volunteers. The focus, Prologo says, was safety.

Now, he hopes to begin a larger study with a control group, to see if freezing the vagus nerve can help people struggling to lose weight finally beat the odds.

Researchers hope to conduct more studies soon. If you are interested in being screened for a new study, below is a link and call 404-778-6088 to inquire.

Learn more: http://radiology.emory.edu/FreezeYourHunger.html