Freezing the Hunger Nerve in the Brain for Weight Loss

Date: Jan 23, 2020

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the obesity epidemic is at an all-time high, with almost 40% of Americans qualifying as obese.

It’s no surprise that the diet industry has capitalized on this startling statistic. Each year, more than 45 million Americans go on diet plans or utilize diet products, making it a $70 billion industry. Experts estimate that only about five percent of dieters can keep the weight off long-term.

Many dieters wish there was a way to “turn off” the hunger signal – and, thanks to David Prologo, MD, an interventional radiologist at Emory University School of Medicine, freezing the hunger nerve in the brain might soon become an innovative new treatment option for adults who need to lose weight.

Turning Off the Brain’s Hunger Signal

Dr. Prologo – who is also board certified in obesity medicine – first came up with the idea when he was using cryoablation to help alleviate debilitating nerve pain in his patients. Cryoablation is a process that essentially freezes the nerve using hollow needles cooled by thermally conductive fluids. Once the probe gets close to the affected nerve, it drops the temperature of the nerve, effectively silencing the nerve ending signals for pain.

Dr. Prologo decided to apply his interventional radiology skill set to obesity medicine. One of the main causes that people quit their diet is hunger – that overwhelming feeling of being too hungry to wait for your next meal. This hunger signal is transmitted through the vagus nerve that runs from the brain to the belly. One of the vagus nerve’s primary duties is alerting the brain when the stomach is both full and empty. Dr. Prologo wondered if using cryoablation to freeze the vagus nerve would quiet those hunger signals for good.

Cryoablation to Curb Hunger (CATCH) Inside the Brain

To move his hypothesis forward, Dr. Prologo took evidence from previous cryoablation studies and presented them to the FDA for a new application – to freeze part of the vagus nerve. Dr. Prologo calls it the CATCH procedure – Cryoablation to Curb Hunger.

The FDA approved a pilot study and the first patient was Melissa Donovan, a maternity nurse at Emory Johns Creek Hospital. Melissa had struggled on and off with her weight all of her life and was ready to get off the roller coaster of diet plans with inconsistent results.

The day after Melissa’s 30-minute procedure to freeze a section of her vagus nerve, she called Dr. Prologo and asked if the procedure was a placebo – for the first time, she had forgotten to eat. She also explained that with the CATCH procedure, she could easily stop eating when she was full. She credits the procedure for changing her life and helping her lose – and maintain a loss of – more than three sizes and 30 pounds.

CATCH Results

Melissa was one of 20 participants in the CATCH pilot study. The participants were not given guidance on diet, calorie restriction, exercise or lifestyle change – and they were all aware that within a year, the frozen section of their vagus nerve will have completely thawed. However, the study showed that the frozen vagus nerve had allowed the participants to take control of their hunger cues – and in turn, their weight.

Six months post-procedure, the participants reported:

  • 18 out of 20 people lost weight
  • 85% of participants reported that their appetite was less than before
  • 50% had cut 460 calories a day from their diet
  • 47% were eating 500 fewer calories a day
  • 24% had cut a whopping 1,000 calories per day

Dr. Prologo believes that freezing the vagus nerve for just a year gives people time to change their bodies – and their lives.

Please note: Emory has reached the maximum number of participants for the CATCH study and is not enrolling patients at this time.

Your Fantastic Mind

Emory University and the Emory Brain Health Center have partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) on a television series, Your Fantastic Mind, which features compelling stories on brain-related health and wellness.

Your Fantastic Mind will begin airing season 2 in late March 2020 on GPB’s statewide television network. The news magazine-style show highlights patient stories and reports on cutting-edge science and clinical advances in the areas of neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, sleep medicine and rehabilitation medicine.

Season 1 of Your Fantastic Mind examined topics including video gaming disorder, which has been named as a real mental health disorder by the World Health Organization, sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease and migraines, among others.

Jaye Watson is the show’s executive producer, writer and host. She is an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning veteran Atlanta journalist and video producer for the Emory Brain Health Center.

Emory Brain Health Center

The Emory Brain Health Center combines neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine in a unique, integrated approach and transforms patient-centered care for brain and spinal cord conditions through research and discovery. Bringing these specialties together, allows more than 400 researchers and clinicians from different areas to work in collaboration to more rapidly predict, prevent, treat or cure devastating diseases or disorders of the brain. These unique collaborations are demonstrated in some of the more than 20 centers and programs within the Brain Health Center, such as the Epilepsy Center, Pituitary Center, Stroke Center, Treatment-Resistant Depression Program, and Veterans Program.

Emory’s multidisciplinary approach is transforming the world’s understanding of the vast frontiers of the brain, harnessing imagination and discovery to address 21st-century challenges.

Learn more about the comprehensive, diagnostic and innovative treatment options at the Emory Brain Health Center.

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