Science/Tech

Snacks On The Brain: Stimulation Of Prefrontal Cortex Boosts Calorie-Dense Food Cravings

chips
When you're elbow-deep in a family-sized bag of chips, this is what your brain is up to. Wiliam Clifford, CC BY 2.0

As you bury a greasy set of knuckles into that bag of potato chips, you’re struck with a thought: Why am I doing this? Well, you probably aren’t thinking that. But, in a way, that’s because your brain isn’t concerned with why you’re mindlessly snacking. All it cares about is keeping the reward centers happy.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo determined in a recent study that the primary brain region responsible for food cravings (salty, high-calorie foods in particular) is known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. Whether it’s chocolate or potato chips, your will power has little say if the DLPFC isn’t working overtime, which may explain the root causes behind obesity and related diseases.

To better understand the role people’s DLPFC plays in mitigating food cravings, the researchers recruited 21 healthy young women who reported having strong cravings for chocolate and potato chips. They showed the women pictures of these foods to stimulate their appetites. Then they applied a type of magnetic stimulation, called continuous theta-burst stimulation, to each woman’s DLPFC, with the hope of decreasing the region’s activity and boosting cravings.

After the stimulation, women reported stronger cravings and consumed more of the desired foods than either dark chocolate or soda crackers. To the researchers, this was evidence DLPFC stimulation did in fact inhibit the region’s normal function of suppressing cravings. “The pattern of findings suggests that the effects of DLPFC stimulation on cravings and behavior may occur via attenuation of executive control,” they wrote.

Basically, the brain has a lot on its plate. As the head of command, it controls just about every bodily function you’ll encounter. Among those is a collection of duties regulating “executive functions,” such as memory, reasoning, and problem solving, among others. People with ADHD tend to have deficits in their executive functioning, weakening their ability to focus. In the same way, people with an overactive DLPFC will find themselves succumbing to cravings.

The researchers suggest these findings can be used to curb the swelling obesity epidemic and prevent future disease cases. The good news is that DLPFC activity isn’t muted; people can use certain strategies to boost its function. Specifically, “interventions focused on enhancing DLPFC activity, through aerobic exercise or other means, may result in increased dietary self-control and subsequently improve disease management,” the team explained.

Other research suggests an added dose of mindfulness may help cut food cravings. A study released in early September found that visualizing food as a combination of shapes and colors, rather than as smells and tastes, helped reduce cravings by up to 16 percent. Imagining the food as farther away also increased the effect.

“Having this basic knowledge in hand is critical if we want to understand how our relationship with food changes across the lifespan,” said the study’s lead investigator Jennifer A. Silvers.

Research suggests this is especially critical given the obesogenic culture that’s emerging. People aren’t just too heavy, the theory states; the environment of food consumption encourages them to keep making unhealthy choices, out of financial constraints and dietary preference. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows childhood obesity rates have doubled over the last 30 years among kids ages 6 to 11 and quadrupled among adolescents 12 to 19. In 1980, five percent of kids were obese. By 2012, the rate had risen to 21 percent.

Source: Lowe C, Hall P, Staines W. The Effects of Continuous Theta Burst Stimulation to the Left Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex on Executive Function, Food Cravings, and Snack Food Consumption. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2014.

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