September 15, 2014 - Magnetic stimulation of a brain area involved in "executive function" affects cravings for and consumption of calorie-dense snack foods, reports a study in the September issue of Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.
After stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), young women experience increased cravings for high-calorie snacks—and eat more of those foods when given the opportunity, according to the study by researchers at University of Waterloo, Ont., Canada. "These findings shed a light on the role of the DLPFC in food cravings (specifically reward anticipation), the consumption of appealing high caloric foods, and the relation between self-control and food consumption," the researchers write. The senior author was Peter Hall, PhD.
Brain Stimulation Affects Cravings and Consumption for 'Appetitive' Snacks
The study included 21 healthy young women, selected because they reported strong and frequent cravings for chocolate and potato chips. Such "appetitive," calorie-dense snack foods are often implicated in the development of obesity.
The women were shown pictures of these foods to stimulate cravings. The researchers then applied a type of magnetic stimulation, called continuous theta-burst stimulation, to decrease activity in the DLPFC. Previous studies have suggested that DLPFC activity plays a role in regulating food cravings.
After theta-burst stimulation, the women reported stronger food cravings—specifically for "appetitive" milk chocolate and potato chips. During a subsequent "taste test," they consumed more of these foods, rather than alternative, less-appetitive foods (dark chocolate and soda crackers).
Stimulation to weaken DLPFC activity was also associated with lower performance on a test of inhibitory control strength (the Stroop test). Decreased DLPFC activity appeared to be associated with increased "reward sensitivity"—it made the participants "more sensitive to the rewarding properties of palatable high caloric foods," the researchers write.
Weak Executive Function May Contribute to Obesity Risk
The results highlight the role of executive function in governing "dietary self-restraint," the researchers believe. Executive function, which involves the DLPFC, refers to a set of cognitive functions that enable "top-down" control of action, emotion, and thought.
At the "basic neurobiological level," the study provides direct evidence that the DLPFC is involved in one specific aspect of food cravings: reward anticipation. People with weak executive function may lack the dietary self-control necessary to regulate snack food consumption in "the modern obesogenic environment." Faced with constant cues and opportunities to consume energy-dense foods, such individuals may be more likely to become overweight or obese.
The results suggest that interventions aimed at enhancing or preserving DLPFC function may help to prevent obesity and related diseases. In conditions such as type 2 diabetes, where healthy dietary habits are essential for effective disease control, "Interventions focused on enhancing DLPFC activity, through aerobic exercise or other means, may result in increased dietary self-control and subsequently improve disease management," Dr Hall and coauthors add.
Click here to read "The Effects of Continuous Theta Burst Stimulation to the Left Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex on Executive Function, Food Cravings, and Snack Food Consumption."
About Psychosomatic Medicine
Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, founded in 1939, is the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. It publishes experimental and clinical studies dealing with various aspects of the relationships among social, psychological, and behavioral factors and bodily processes in humans and animals. Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine is an international, interdisciplinary journal devoted to experimental and clinical investigation in behavioral biology, psychiatry, psychology, physiology, anthropology, and clinical medicine. The print journal is published nine times a year; most articles are published online ahead of print.
About the American Psychosomatic Society
The mission of the American Psychosomatic Society is to promote and advance the scientific understanding and multidisciplinary integration of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in human health and disease, and to foster the dissemination and application of this understanding in education and health care.
The American Psychosomatic Society is a worldwide community of scholars and clinicians dedicated to the scientific understanding of the interaction of mind, brain, body and social context in promoting health. The organization is devoted to biopsychosocial research and integrated clinical care, and to providing a forum via its website, Annual Meeting and journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, for sharing this research. Its members are from around the world, including specialists from all medical and health-related disciplines, the behavioral sciences, and the social sciences.
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