Kids Sensitive to Food Rewards in Brain-Imaging Study Eat More

Marlene Busko

November 02, 2016

NEW ORLEANS — Nine-year-old children with stronger responses in reward regions of the brain when they anticipated receiving candy as opposed to money ate larger amounts of a test meal — whether they were slim or heavy — in a new study.

"Our data showing that how the brain responds to food and money rewards independently relates to how much children eat in a lab test meal, regardless of how much they weigh," Shan Adise, a PhD candidate at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, reported at Obesity Week 2016, the joint annual scientific meeting of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the Obesity Society (TOS).

"We found…that, yes, children who weigh more eat more, but the brain's response to rewards also plays a really critical role in food intake," since the kids also ate more if they had a larger left striatum response to food reward, regardless of their body size, Ms Adise told Medscape Medical News.

Heightened sensitivity to food rewards may contribute to long-term weight gain and overweight and obesity, but based on this early research "we don't know that just yet," she cautioned.

However, if further research supports these findings and a better understanding develops of how some children respond more to food cues, "maybe we can tailor interventions to help these kids and find a critical window to help regulate their intake," she said.

Asked to comment, session comoderator Jaime Davis, PhD, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Medscape Medical News that adolescents are "starting to develop autonomous thinking in their food choices, so I think that work in how the reward circuit affects food choices in children…is crucial.

"We know that sugar and sweets trigger reward circuits" in the brain, but it isn't known whether it is possible to change this. "I think that's actually where we need to take this research next," she added.

fMRI Study of Food and Reward Centers in Children

Most functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of how the brain responds to food rewards have been done in adults, but childhood and adolescence is a critical time of brain maturation and potential weight gain, said Ms Adise.

Thus, she and her colleagues performed a study to gain a better understanding of decision making and the relationship to food intake in 7- to 11-year-old children.

They enrolled 69 children (of a planned cohort of 84 children). Sixty children (27 boys and 33 girls) completed the study; 32 children had a healthy weight and 28 were overweight or obese.

The children had a fMRI test to determine blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) responses when they played a game where they could win $5, eat 66 g of M&Ms (a regular-size package), or received a blue book (no reward).

The children also had a laboratory test meal of familiar, favorite foods at mealtime, where they were allowed to eat as much or little as they wanted.

Children who had a heightened response in the left striatum (a brain region associated with reward) when they anticipated candy as opposed to money ate more of the test meal.

But those who had a decreased response in the caudate (a brain area associated with reward, cognitive control, and attention) when anticipating either candy or money also ate more of the test meal.

The children were familiar with cash as a reward since they lived in a wealthy neighborhood, Ms Adise said, in reply to a question from the audience.

"This is the first study to show a correlation between food intake and the brain response to anticipation of various rewards in children," she and her colleagues note. "Our results suggest reward processing differs based on reward type, which may predict overeating."

Ms Adise added: "The brain's response to food compared with money might play a role in overeating, but this needs to be further evaluated in a longitudinal study."

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Obesity Week 2016: The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery and the Obesity Society Joint Annual Scientific Meeting; November 1, 2016; New Orleans, LA. Abstract T-OR-2007.

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