When you eat a cookie, your brain sparkles. That’s a scientific description of how cookies work. An MRI can see those sparkles as dopamine neurons light up in response to the reward of eating a delicious treat. Typically, high-calorie foods like chocolaty, buttery cookies activate the brain’s reward system more than low-calorie foods like broccoli. This is true also of the anticipatory reward system, so when faced with the bounty of the grocery store’s produce section, which is almost always inexplicably next to the bakery, you’ll often be more likely to be drawn to the cookies.
How much easier would it be if brains sparkled for the broccoli? A small study published recently in Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that could at least be a possibility.
The study followed 13 overweight and obese adults over six months as they took part in a behavioral intervention weight loss program. The program offered “high-satiety menu plans, recipes, and tip sheets.” The researchers scanned participants’ brains before and after the six-month program using an fMRI, and focused on activity in the striatum, a region of the brain associated with reward processing.
While participants were having their brains scanned, researchers showed them pictures of high-calorie foods (fries, Froot Loops, a chicken leg) and low-calorie foods (a grilled chicken breast, a sweet potato). They also rated the desirability of these foods.