A peek inside the brains of obese & anorexics

Articles
October 27, 2008

A peek inside the brains of obese & anorexics

Might food manufacturers and retailers be more differentiating if they understood what consumers think and feel when they eat foods bought from their displays? They certainly know plenty about their shopping and buying habits, but how much more in sync could they be if they “feel the consumption experience” and somehow develop ways to enhance consumer satisfaction? These insights could one day be enormous for the trade, and if they emerge they’ll be a possible byproduct of academic studies undertaken to capture the brain activity that occurs when people eat.

Might food manufacturers and retailers be more differentiating if they understood what consumers think and feel when they eat foods bought from their displays? They certainly know plenty about their shopping and buying habits, but how much more in sync could they be if they “feel the consumption experience” and somehow develop ways to enhance consumer satisfaction?

These insights could one day be enormous for the trade, and if they emerge they’ll be a possible byproduct of academic studies undertaken to capture the brain activity that occurs when people eat.

Two studies this past year—one of the obese released this month, and one of anorexics issued a year ago—identified some surprising brain response among research subjects. It seems neither group particularly enjoys their food, though for different reasons.

While obese people expect to enjoy food more, they actually enjoy it less, and so they overeat more high-calorie food to compensate for the missing enjoyment, described a WebMD account of real-time brain-image research of obese and lean women by Eric Stice, Ph.D. of the Oregon Research Institute with colleagues.  Less activity in the brain’s pleasure centers probably relates to “down-regulation of the brain’s reward circuit….The more you eat an unhealthy diet, the more you see this blunted pleasure response to high-energy foods,” he was quoted. “They eat more to get the same reward.”  Most susceptible to obesity: people with dulled dopamine response.

The brain plays a different trick on recovered anorexics, according to research published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Price Foundation.  They have significantly less activity in the insula (which recognizes taste) and related regions of the brain (which tell how rewarding the taste is), and therefore might have trouble recognizing tastes or responding to the pleasures of food. So said Walter Kaye of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who with Angela Wagner, also of Pitt, and the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, scanned the brains of 16 recovered anorexics and 16 women without an eating disorder, detailed a LiveScience report.

The outcome, said the researchers: food may be more bland and boring, rather than rewarding, to anorexics, even after they recover.