Of the many health crises the world faces today, obesity is one of the most severe and widespread. It affects more than 600 million adults worldwide, while countries like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom demonstrate obesity rates in excess of 25% of the population. Roughly one third of the American population is obese.
It has also proven to be remarkably resistant to both behavioral and pharmacological interventions, which underscores the need for new solutions. A team of German researchers is now looking at how self-regulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlFPC)—a region of the brain involved in impulse control—may help obese individuals to reframe their relation to high-calory foods. Their paper appeared in Neuroscience.
Self-regulation of neurological activation involves observing a real-time fMRI videofeed of one’s own brain and employing a variety of mental strategies to increase (up-regulate) or decrease (down-regulate) activity in a particular area. In the case of the present study, 17 individuals were tasked with increasing activity in their dlFPC, while a control of 21 participants were asked to increase activity in their visual cortex (VC), both in response to images of food.
The findings are interesting not only for the insight they provide into the neurological underpinnings of obesity, but also because they failed to produce behavioral changes, indicating a complex relation between brain and behavior in diet and obesity.
In the study, participants were presented with a series of images of food and asked to rate them based on desire to eat them. They were then trained on self-regulation and encouraged to try different strategies to up-regulate the brain region in question. Individuals were free to employ whatever strategy they liked, and indeed a variety of strategies was demonstrated by the participants.
Following training, individuals were again presented with images of highly palatable foods and encouraged, again, to self-regulate their dlFPC or VC (control). The results of the study are mixed and difficult to interpret, however.
Both groups rated pictures of high-calorie foods as less palatable and chose them less frequently compared to baseline. The authors suggest that up-regulation of the VC may inadvertently lead to increased dlPFC activity, thus confounding the groups.
In addition, neither group ingested any fewer calories during a covert assessment of snacking behavior. However, social elements may have played an important role in reducing intake both before and after self-regulation, and the participants did at least demonstrate reduced preference for high-calorie food items compared to before.
Taken together, this evidence shows both promise and a great need for further research. Self-regulation via neurofeedback and the accompanying mental strategies employed by participants obviously were effective in reducing interest in high calorie foods, but translating this into behavioral changes will require additional testing.
Obesity is a global health crisis that’s greatly resistant to intervention. Studies like the present one which explore novel approaches are thus of great importance and provide a good starting point for additional research.