The research, carried out by academics from the Universities of Exeter, Cardiff, Bristol and Bangor, discovered that an individual's brain "reward center" response to pictures of food predicted how much they subsequently ate. This had a greater effect on the amount they ate than their conscious feelings of hunger or how much they wanted the food,
A strong brain response was also associated with increased weight (BMI), but only in individuals reporting low levels of self-control on a questionnaire. For those reporting high levels of self-control a stronger brain response to food was actually related to a lower BMI.
This study, which is now published in the journal NeuroImage, adds to mounting evidence that overeating and increased weight are linked, in part, to a region of the brain associated with motivation and reward, called the nucleus accumbens. Responses in this brain region have been shown to predict weight gain in healthy weight and obese individuals, but only now have academics discovered that this is independent of conscious feelings of hunger, and that self-control also plays a key role.
Following these results, academics at the University of Exeter and Cardiff have begun testing "brain training" techniques designed to reduce the influence of food cues on individuals who report low levels of self-control. Similar tests are being used to assist those with gambling or alcohol addiction.
Dr. Natalia Lawrence of Psychology at the University of Exeter, lead researcher in both the original research and the new studies, said, "Our research suggests why some individuals are more likely to overeat and put on weight than others when confronted with frequent images of snacks and treats. Food images, such as those used in advertising, cause direct increases in activity in brain 'reward areas' in some individuals but not in others. If those sensitive individuals also struggle with self-control, which may be partly innate, they are more likely to be overweight. We are now developing computer programs that we hope will counteract the effects of this high sensitivity to food cues by training the brain to respond less positively to these cues."
Some 25 young, healthy females with BMIs ranging from 17-30 were involved in the study. Female participants were chosen because research shows females typically exhibit stronger responses to food-related cues. The hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle affect this reaction, so all participants were taking the monophasic combined oral contraceptive pill. Participants had not eaten for at least six hours to ensure they were hungry at the time of the scan and were given a bowl containing 150g (four and a half packets) of potato chips to eat at the end of the study; they were informed that potato chip intake had been measured afterwards.
Researchers used MRI scanning to detect the participants' brain activity while they were shown images of household objects, and food that varied in desirability and calorific content. After scanning, participants rated the food images for desirability and rated their levels of hunger and food craving. Results showed that participants' brain responses to food (relative to objects) in the nucleus accumbens predicted how many potato chips they ate after the scan. However, participants' own ratings of hunger and how much they liked and wanted the foods, including potato chips, were unrelated to their potato chip intake.
This study was funded by the Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.