, Volume 231, Issue 9, pp 1897–1912

Addicted to palatable foods: comparing the neurobiology of Bulimia Nervosa to that of drug addiction


  • Natalie A. Hadad
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Florida
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Florida

DOI: 10.1007/s00213-014-3461-1

Cite this article as:
Hadad, N.A. & Knackstedt, L.A. Psychopharmacology (2014) 231: 1897. doi:10.1007/s00213-014-3461-1



Bulimia nervosa (BN) is highly comorbid with substance abuse and shares common phenotypic and genetic predispositions with drug addiction. Although treatments for the two disorders are similar, controversy remains about whether BN should be classified as addiction.


Here, we review the animal and human literature with the goal of assessing whether BN and drug addiction share a common neurobiology.


Similar neurobiological features are present following administration of drugs and bingeing on palatable food, especially sugar. Specifically, both disorders involve increases in extracellular dopamine (DA), D1 binding, D3 messenger RNA (mRNA), and ΔFosB in the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Animal models of BN reveal increases in ventral tegmental area (VTA) DA and enzymes involved in DA synthesis that resemble changes observed after exposure to addictive drugs. Additionally, alterations in the expression of glutamate receptors and prefrontal cortex activity present in human BN or following sugar bingeing in animals are comparable to the effects of addictive drugs. The two disorders differ in regards to alterations in NAc D2 binding, VTA DAT mRNA expression, and the efficacy of drugs targeting glutamate to treat these disorders.


Although additional empirical studies are necessary, the synthesis of the two bodies of research presented here suggests that BN shares many neurobiological features with drug addiction. While few Food and Drug Administration-approved options currently exist for the treatment of drug addiction, pharmacotherapies developed in the future, which target the glutamate, DA, and opioid systems, may be beneficial for the treatment of both BN and drug addiction.


Bulimia nervosaAddictionNeurobiologyDopamineGlutamateOpioidPalatable foodBingeingSugarSucrose

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014