Outsmarting Your Appetite

At 5 feet tall and 300 pounds, Candy Bradshaw was morbidly obese -- which made her five times more likely to have a heart attack -- and twice as likely to die young. As frightening as those statistics may be, they were no more daunting than the emotional pain Bradshaw's obesity caused her. An incident one day at her son's preschool drove that home.

"The children were in the corner laughing and I went over to see what they were laughing about. The kids had drawn a picture of this severely obese person and had written my name on it. And my son was absolutely devastated," Bradshaw told "20/20."

Over the years, Bradshaw had tried and failed at countless attempts to lose weight. She said she tried "the grapefruit diets, the low-carb diets, the low-fat diets, the all-water diets, the all-banana diets and whatever diet there was out there."

It seemed the only option left was gastric bypass surgery, but Bradshaw did not want to undergo such a major and risky operation. She felt she had run out of options and hope.

"It was a kind of quiet despair, because it wasn't where I wanted to be, but yet I settled for that," she said.

Pacemaker Helps Regulate Appetite

Meanwhile at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston, Dr. Scott Shikora had learned about a most unusual obesity therapy from Italy. The procedure was far less drastic than gastric bypass.

"I'm very excited," said Shikora. "I've been excited about it from the beginning, because it just has this feel of this great breakthrough -- a safer, better way of doing what we've been doing all these years."

Shikora learned that pacemakers -- like ones commonly used to treat heart problems -- were being attached to the stomachs of obese patients. And an amazing thing was happening.

"It reduces appetite. But unlike the other procedures, it doesn't change the shape or the size of the stomach," he said.

Shikora began to test the gastric pacemaker in American patients in a clinical trial in 1999. Bradshaw was one of the first volunteers for the study.

The device itself is similar to a heart pacemaker and about the size of a silver dollar. It is implanted in a one-hour procedure with general anesthesia. Surgeons use a laparoscope to make small holes in the abdominal wall down to the stomach and then attach two electrical wires right into the outer wall of the stomach. The wires send mild bursts of electricity throughout the stomach wall. The wires are powered by a battery in the pacemaker which is placed under the skin on the abdomen.

The result is that the stomach's nerves are stimulated, which fool wearers into thinking their stomach is full.

Bradshaw said she feels no pain or discomfort from the device. "I did not feel the pacer itself. I felt an intense fullness. If you kept eating once you reached that full feeling, then it did become extremely uncomfortable. I won't say I ever felt pain. I would just call it extreme discomfort," she said.

The pounds started to come off. A year later Bradshaw had dropped from a size 28 to a size 14. It's still a bit of a mystery how the pacemaker makes people feel less hungry. There are at least three possibilities:

It may send a direct message via the nerves to the brain saying you're full.

It may relax the muscles in the stomach signaling that you're full.

It may block gut hormones that make you feel hungry.

However it works, it only controls appetite -- you still control what you eat.

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