Study finds some individuals display larger brain responses to food-related cues than to erotic images

New research published in Psychophysiology provides new insights into the neuropsychological underpinnings of obesity. The study indicates that some people have increased neural sensitivity to food‐related cues.

“Over 62,000 photos are shared worldwide each day under the hashtag #foodporn,” the authors of the study wrote. “These images glamorize the highly palatable, high‐calorie foods that are believed to promote the maladaptive eating patterns contributing to today’s obesity epidemic. A common assumption is that obese individuals have difficulty controlling food intake partly because food‐related stimuli elicit irresistible cravings by abnormally activating their brain’s appetitive systems.”

The study was based on 49 individuals from the Houston metropolitan area.

The researchers monitored the electrical brain activity of the participants as they viewed a series of images, including but not limited to erotica and food. During this task, chocolate M&M candies were delivered in a receptacle within arm’s reach from the participant after they had viewed a food image. The participants were instructed to either eat it or deposit it in a box.

The researchers were particularly interested in a neural marker called the Late Positive Potential (LPP), which provides a measure of how much someone is paying attention to visual stimuli.

Based on this neural marker, the participants were classified into two groups: those with larger LPPs to cues predicting food delivery than to erotic images and those with those with larger LPPs to erotic images than cues predicting food delivery.

The researchers found that individuals with larger LPPs to cues predicting food delivery than to erotic images ate more than twice as many chocolate candies.

“By contributing to the understanding of the biological basis underlying individual differences in vulnerability to cue‐induced eating, our findings represent a step toward identifying new targets for personalized weight control interventions aimed at regulating the intense motivation to eat that many individuals experience in the presence of cues associated with highly palatable foods,” the researchers concluded.

Some of the researchers associated with the current study have have previously used a similar procedure to identify smokers at elevated risk of relapse while trying to quit.

The study, “The reality of “food porn”: Larger brain responses to food‐related cues than to erotic images predict cue‐induced eating“, was authored by Francesco Versace, David W. Frank, Elise M. Stevens, Menton M. Deweese, Michele Guindani, and Susan M. Schembre.