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Exploring the connection between food and brain function

Brain imaging studies are helping scientists better understand the neural underpinnings of eating behaviors ranging from extreme overeating to food deprivation. For example, research has shown that urges to binge eat may be tied to a region of the brain involved in controlling emotions and learning, and that increased chemical activity in an area of the brain related to reward and reinforcement could be linked to anorexia nervosa.

Now recent studies exploring a variety of neural activity across a spectrum of eating behaviors suggest that the brains of people who are obese and the brains of patients with anorexia could be wired differently. Neuroscientists discussed their work during a symposium yesterday at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in Chicago.

A story today on PsychCentral offers an overview of the research and highlights an interesting experiment comparing fMRI brain scans of individuals with one of three conditions - anorexia, obesity and Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic condition that can lead to severe obesity - with healthy control subjects. Rick Nauert writes:

When hungry, those with anorexia, who severely restrict their food intake, showed substantially decreased responses to various pictures of food in regions of their brains associated with reward and pleasure. For those who chronically overeat, there were significantly increased responses in those same brain regions.

“Our findings provide evidence of an overall continuum relating food intake behavior and weight outcomes to food reward circuitry activity,” [said Laura Holsen, PhD, who presented the findings at the meeting.]

Holsen believes her findings are relevant for everyday eating decisions in healthy individuals. “Even in individuals who do not have eating disorders, there are areas of the brain that assist in evaluating the reward value of different foods, which in turn plays a role in the decisions we make about which foods to eat.”

Previously: How lack of sleep affects the brain and may increase appetite, weight gain and High-fat foods may tell the brain to splurge
Photo by Shannon Kokoska

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