Research

The Nutritional Neuroscience Lab studies the neural correlates of taste, satiety and (unhealthy) food choice, gut-brain interactions, effects of personality characteristics on food-induced brain responses and functional neuroimaging in anorexia nervosa. Below, a few of our research topics are highlighted. Click the questions to find out more (more will be added soon!)

 

What happens in your brain when you're looking at a tasty snack?
summary firstasteeyes
We performed a meta-analysis (Van der Laan et al., 2011) to determine food-specific brain regions. Although earlier research had reported an extensive set of brain regions that were activated in response to viewing food pictures, our meta-analysis revealed that only a few of these areas were consistently activated across studies. With at best 41% of the experiments contributing to the most concurrent clusters, concurrency across studies was moderate. The most concurrent brain regions activated in response to viewing food pictures were the bilateral posterior fusiform gyrus, the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the left middle insula. Hunger modulated the response to food pictures in the right amygdala and left lateral OFC, and energy content modulated the response in the hypothalamus/ventral striatum and middle occipital gyrus.

Can you predict snack choices with brain activation?
predictchoice
We assessed the accuracy of fMRI in conjunction with the novel analysis technique multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) to predict food choice (Van der Laan et al., 2012). Whereas prior studies were limited to using mass-univariate analysis, or investigated high involvement consumer products, this was the rst study to investigate the accuracy of fMRI in conjunction with MVPA to predict every day consumer choices. Food choices could be predicted with an accuracy of up to 61.2% by activation patterns in brain regions previously found to be involved in healthy food choices (superior frontal gyrus) and visual processing (middle occipital gyrus). We found that mass-univariate analysis can detect small package-induced di erences in product preference and that MVPA can successfully predict realistic low-involvement consumer choices from fMRI data. Moreover, the behavioral results of the study suggested that healthy food choices might be promoted by presenting healthy foods in more attractive packages.

The neural correlates of food choice in parents and their children.
Obesity is one of the main determinants of avoidable ill health, as it causes diverse and often irreversible negative health consequences. The prevalence of obesity in children is increasing in most parts of the world. The lack of long-term effective treatment puts the focus on prevention, which will have to start early in life since by adolescence, young people who are overweight are at high risk to become overweight or obese adults. The question is what causes some children to become overweight while their peers maintain a healthy weight? Diet, i.e., the daily choice of foods, is thought to play a large role in these individual differences, in interaction with genetics and environment. Decisions on what, when and how much to eat to eat are very important to stay in energetic balance, i.e. not to gain weight.  The way we come to these decisions, which resources we tap into, could be fundamental in understanding why some make healthy choices and some make unhealthy choices. A better understanding of the neural correlates of (un)healthy food choice in children and their parents will give us more insight into the determinants of healthy eating behavior in general and that in children in particular. By comparing children’s responses to those of their parents the effects of age can be assessed in isolation. We are currently conducting a study in which we examine the neural correlates of healthy and unhealthy choices in children and their parents, as part of the I.Family project (http://www.ifamilystudy.eu/). Using fMRI during food choice we want to see if the food choice process of children differs from their parents, and if healthy eating people have different brain activation during food choice than unhealthy eating people.

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Research from the Nutritional Neuroscience Lab was funded by grants from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)

The Nutritional Neuroscience Lab is affiliated with the Image Sciences Institute of the University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands.