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Does This Brain Scan Say I’ll Look Fat Later?

April 19, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Brain scans may be able to predict weight gain, sexual activity, and other effects related to “appetitive behaviors.”

Dartmouth College researchers showed incoming first-year college students a variety of images: animals, environmental scenes, appetizing food items, and people. Using functional MRI, the researchers scanned the reaction to the images in the brain’s nucleus accumbens, also known as the brain’s “reward center.” Six months later, the subjects were weighed and filled out a questionnaire regarding their sexual behavior in those six months.

“The people whose brains responded more strongly to food cues were the people who went on to gain more weight six months later,” said Kathryn Demos, PhD. She conducted the research as part of her doctoral dissertation at Dartmouth and is the first author on a study about the results that was published Wednesday in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Dr. Demos is now a research fellow at Brown Alpert Medical School and the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center of The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. She was quoted in a Dartmouth news release.

The subjects who reacted more strongly to sexual images also reported more sexual activity. “Just as cue reactivity to food images was investigated as potential predictors of weight gain, cue reactivity to sexual images was used to predict sexual desire,” the study says.

Todd Heatherton, PhD, another of the study’s authors, noted the significance:

This is one of the first studies in brain imaging that uses the responses observed in the scanner to predict important, real-world outcomes over a long period of time. Using brain activity to predict a consequential behavior outside the scanner is pretty novel.

Dr. Heatherton is the Lincoln Filene professor in human relations in Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain studies.

Besides being “pretty novel,” the research could be helpful to people seeing to control their appetitive behaviors. Becoming aware of how much certain triggers, such as the sight of a cupcake, might affect you is the first step toward controlling cravings, the researchers said.

“You need to actively be thinking about the behavior you want to control in order to regulate it,” said William Kelley, PhD, senior author of the study. “Self-regulation requires a lot of conscious effort.”

Dr. Kelley is an associate professor of psychological and brain science. “We seek to understand situations in which people face temptations and try not to act on them,” he said.

Don’t we all?

Related seminar: Neuro & Musculoskeletal Imaging

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