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The Role of Neurotransmitters in Binge Eating | Balance

Binge eating is a complex behavioral disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period, accompanied by a sense of loss of control and distress.

It is a prevalent eating disorder, affecting a significant number of individuals, and is often associated with other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Understanding the underlying neurobiology of binge eating is crucial for developing effective treatments and interventions.

In this article, we will explore the role of neurotransmitters in binge eating and how they contribute to the development and maintenance of this disorder.

neurotransmitters diagram

What is Binge Eating?

Binge eating is a behavioral condition characterized by recurrent episodes of rapid and excessive food consumption, accompanied by distressing thoughts and emotions.

It is often associated with preoccupation with food, weight, and shape, as well as anxiety about eating or the consequences of eating certain foods.

There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED). Anorexia nervosa is characterized by severe food restriction and an obsession with weight loss, while bulimia nervosa involves episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting or excessive exercise. BED, on the other hand, is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food without compensatory behaviors.

The Role of Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that play a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, including mood, appetite, and impulse control.

Three neurotransmitters, in particular, have been extensively studied and found to have a significant impact on emotion and behavior: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body. It is involved in various bodily functions, including mood regulation, sleep, digestion, and appetite.

Research suggests that alterations in brain serotonin function contribute to different aspects of eating disorders, including binge eating, perfectionism, impulsivity, and mood regulation problems.


Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in many body functions, including memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention, and pleasure.

It is often referred to as the "feel-good" hormone and is part of the brain's reward system.

Dopamine is released when we engage in pleasurable activities, such as eating or engaging in other rewarding behaviors.

In the context of binge eating, dopamine is believed to play a role in the reinforcement of food-seeking behaviors and the experience of pleasure associated with food consumption.


Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, is released predominantly from the ends of sympathetic nerve fibers. It is involved in the body's response to stress and threat, often referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response.

Norepinephrine also plays a role in motivation and concentration.

Dysregulation of the norepinephrine system has been implicated in various psychiatric disorders, including binge eating disorder.

The Neurobiology of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a specific type of eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating.

It is associated with alterations in brain circuitry and neurotransmitter systems that regulate motivation, impulse control, and reward processing. Several key neurobiological aspects contribute to the development and maintenance of BED.


Impulsivity is a behavioral trait characterized by making hasty decisions without considering the consequences. It is often associated with a lack of inhibition and an inability to postpone reward.

Compared to individuals without binge eating disorder, those with BED exhibit increased impulsivity, both in terms of decision-making and motor inhibition. The brain circuit involved in impulsivity includes the ventral striatum, thalamus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.


Compulsivity refers to repetitive and persistent actions that are not related to a goal or reward but persist despite adverse consequences.

In the context of binge eating disorder, compulsivity manifests as the persistent repetition of binge eating episodes despite the negative physical and emotional consequences. Compulsivity is mediated by the dorsal striatum, thalamus, and orbitofrontal cortex.

Cognitive Deficits

Patients with binge eating disorder often exhibit cognitive deficits in various domains, including executive function, attention, and decision-making. These deficits primarily involve the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for inhibitory control and decision-making processes. Obese individuals with BED tend to have more severe cognitive deficits compared to those without BED

Attention and Memory Biases

Individuals with binge eating disorder often exhibit attentional biases towards food-related cues, such as pictures of high-caloric foods.

These biases can interfere with information processing and contribute to the maintenance of binge eating behaviors. Inattention is another cognitive deficit observed in individuals with BED, making it difficult to focus on stimuli and resist the urge to engage in binge eating.

Decision-Making Impairments

Binge eating disorder is associated with impairments in decision-making processes, particularly during tasks that involve probabilistic rewards or delayed rewards.

Obese individuals with BED tend to show a reduced preference for delayed rewards and a higher propensity for risk-taking behaviors. These decision-making impairments are also observed in individuals with a history of substance abuse.

Genetic Factors

The development of binge eating disorder is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Studies have shown that BED has heritability estimates ranging from 41% to 57%.

Several genes related to dopamine neurotransmission have been implicated in the development of binge eating disorder, including genes coding for dopamine receptors and the dopamine transporter.

The interplay between genetic susceptibility and environmental factors, such as trauma or dieting encouragement, can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Neurotransmitter Pathways

Two key neurotransmitter pathways, dopamine, and opioids, have been implicated in binge eating disorder. Dopaminergic pathways, particularly the mesolimbic reward system, play a crucial role in reward motivation and incentive salience.

Altered dopamine signaling and receptor levels have been observed in individuals with BED. Opioid neurotransmission, which is involved in pain relief and reward processing, has also been linked to binge eating behaviors.


Binge eating disorder is a complex condition with neurobiological underpinnings involving various neurotransmitter systems and brain circuits.

Dysregulation of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, along with alterations in reward processing, impulse control, and cognitive functioning, contribute to the development and maintenance of binge eating behaviors.

Understanding the role of neurotransmitters in binge eating disorder is crucial for developing targeted treatments and interventions that address the underlying neurobiology of this condition.

Further research is needed to elucidate the specific mechanisms and pathways involved in order to improve outcomes for individuals with binge eating disorder.


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