Food portion size and energy density evoke different patterns of brain activation in children

Laural K English, S Nicole Fearnbach, Stephen J Wilson, Jennifer O Fisher, Jennifer S Savage, Barbara J Rolls, Kathleen L Keller
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2017, 105 (2): 295-305

BACKGROUND: Large portions of food promote intake, but the mechanisms that drive this effect are unclear. Previous neuroimaging studies have identified the brain-reward and decision-making systems that are involved in the response to the energy density (ED) (kilocalories per gram) of foods, but few studies have examined the brain response to the food portion size (PS).

OBJECTIVE: We used functional MRI (fMRI) to determine the brain response to food images that differed in PSs (large and small) and ED (high and low).

DESIGN: Block-design fMRI was used to assess the blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response to images in 36 children (7-10 y old; girls: 50%), which was tested after a 2-h fast. Pre-fMRI fullness and liking were rated on visual analog scales. A whole-brain cluster-corrected analysis was used to compare BOLD activation for main effects of the PS, ED, and their interaction. Secondary analyses were used to associate BOLD contrast values with appetitive traits and laboratory intake from meals for which the portions of all foods were increased.

RESULTS: Compared with small-PS cues, large-PS cues were associated with decreased activation in the inferior frontal gyrus (P < 0.01). Compared with low-ED cues, high-ED cues were associated with increased activation in multiple regions (e.g., in the caudate, cingulate, and precentral gyrus) and decreased activation in the insula and superior temporal gyrus (P < 0.01 for all). A PS × ED interaction was shown in the superior temporal gyrus (P < 0.01). BOLD contrast values for high-ED cues compared with low-ED cues in the insula, declive, and precentral gyrus were negatively related to appetitive traits (P < 0.05). There were no associations between the brain response to the PS and either appetitive traits or intake.

CONCLUSIONS: Cues regarding food PS may be processed in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is a region that is implicated in cognitive control, whereas ED activates multiple areas involved in sensory and reward processing. Possible implications include the development of interventions that target decision-making and reward systems differently to moderate overeating.

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