Brain mechanisms of food reward

March 11, 2013 by Marco Merola
Suzanne Dickson: Brain mechanisms of food reward

Studying what makes us want to eat, could help devise approaches to prevent obesity, which is becoming widespread in Europe

Suzanne Dickson is a Professor of physiology and at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, based at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She tells about her involvement in the EU funded NeuroFAST project. Her focus is on the impact of appetite-regulating gut hormones on that influence food preference and food reward.

This research is also driven by the huge unmet need of treating the growing group of .

What is the focus of your work relating to food and the brain?

We work on food reward, which involves neurobiological circuits linked to the addiction process. We decided to work on this because increasing evidence linked excessive over-eating to brain pathways involved in reward, including pathways known to be targets for . Over-eating can be influenced by traits, psychiatric diseases, cues from the environment that trigger expectation of a food reward. Other factors include socio-economic pressures, stressful lifestyle including stress in the workplace or home.

What is the nature of food reward?

Our specific focus is on the property of the reward value. If animals find food rewarding, they will display altered behaviours that indicate that the reward value of the food is changed. Members of our team are working with sugars, fats and combinations of the above. We have also been working in clinical projects with foods of similar taste but with altered caloric value. By targeting brain mechanisms involved in food reward, we hope to reveal new mechanisms that will help develop new treatment strategies for obesity.

We have studied an area of the brain called ventral tegmental area (VTA) is a key node in the brain's reward pathway. It is the home of the dopamine cells that are activated by rewards, including food rewards. Its role is very complex. Many believe that these cells are involved in food searching behaviours or food motivation, for example. However, they also can be activated simply by cues associated with foods akin to deciding to consume a chocolate bar by the sight of one at the cashier in a supermarket and novelty of the reward stimulus appears to play a role.

Did you identify the difference between the brain's pleasure center and hunger center?

The pleasure centres are involved in food intake that is linked to its reward value. Whether we are hungry or fed, by raising the reward value of food the reward system encourages us to eat more, especially rewarding food. This system has been critical during the evolution process to ensure survival from famine. In our modern environment that generates obesity, food reward is no longer our friend as it encourages us to over-indulge in sweet and fatty food, even when we are not hungry.

By contrast, the hunger pathways can be considered more primitive. They detect and respond to nutrient deficit. If we enter negative energy balance, homeostatic pathways become activated informing higher feeding networks to initiate feeding behaviours.

What strategies have studied to try and find ways to limit over-eating?

We have recently learned from the field of bariatric—weight loss—surgery that it is possible to change reward behaviour towards food. This involves unknown mechanisms that are likely linked to the brain's reward system. We focus particularly on a hormone called ghrelin whose secretion is altered after bariatric surgery. We hope to reveal new information that is of clinical and therapeutic relevance for future drug strategies for this disease area.

So far, in the laboratory, we have learned a lot about the basic brain mechanisms controlling and the role played by gut hormones in regulating these. We therefore know a lot more about mechanisms—namely about the brain systems and circuits underpinning over-eating—especially for calorie dense foods.

Explore further: Study links insulin action on brain's reward circuitry to obesity

More information:

Related Stories

Ghrelin increases willingness to pay for food

July 12, 2011

Research to be presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), the foremost society for research into all aspects of eating and drinking behavior, suggests that ghrelin, ...

Recommended for you

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...

Wireless sensor enables study of traumatic brain injury

November 23, 2015

A new system that uses a wireless implant has been shown to record for the first time how brain tissue deforms when subjected to the kind of shock that causes blast-induced trauma commonly seen in combat veterans.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.