Researchers Discover Dedicated Brain Area For Food Responses

March 24, 2023

Summary: When we see anything, it results in increased excitement in the visual cortex. However, studies show that people, places, and words result in the lightening up of different neuronal clusters in the cortex. Now a new study shows that the same is true for foods. A sub-region in their visual cortex lightens when people see food items. They call this cluster of neurons that react to food VFC. Understanding how people see or interpret foods may help manage eating disorders.

Think of French fries, strawberries, and ice cream. Doesn’t it induce a specific sensation? A new study shows that a dedicated group of neurons in the visual cortex lights up when one sees food items. For a long time, science has known that there is a visual cortex that analyzes all visual information and coordinates with various brain parts to decide responses. However, now, new studies show that things are not as simple. It appears that within the visual cortex, there are dedicated areas responsible for responding to different kinds of information like faces, words, bodies, and places. Since food plays such an important role in physical health and human culture, it appears that there is a dedicated brain part for processing food images.

Food is more than merely a source of nutrients for humans. Food is a part of cultural practices. It even helps people socialize. Food is part of cultural identities and religious practices and has many other meanings. So, how did researchers find that humans have a dedicated brain part to food responses? First, researchers used hundreds of images of foods and other items available in the public domain. Then, they showed these images to the participants in the study. Finally, they developed a special way of monitoring the various brain centers. The idea that there might be a special and dedicated brain region for recognizing foods came to researchers since early studies have shown that a specific part of the brain recognizes people and places. 

To understand brain responses of the brain to foods, researchers analyzed already available brain scan data (fMRI) of eight individuals who viewed thousands of images. However, researchers realized that identifying specific neural populations responding to foods would be challenging due to the low resolution of fMRI data. Thus, they developed a special mathematical model which allowed them to discover specific neural populations.

They say that each voxel contains thousands of neurons, and the response of a few neurons to visual input is drowned in the response of other neuronal populations within the same voxel. However, new mathematical or analytical models help identify even small changes in a few neurons within the voxel of fMRI data. Simply said, the new model helps identify even responses or signals of a few neurons within a bunch of neurons.

Using this approach, they could find that a specific group of neurons become excited within the visual cortex when shown images of faces, places, bodies, and words.  Similarly, researchers found that food images caused the lightening of the specific neural population in the cluster. They called this neuronal population a food-specific population or ventral food component (VFC). Further researchers also tested the specificity of VFC. For example, they wanted to see if this population of brain neurons could be excited by exposing individuals to something that looks like food. For example, something that closely resembles a banana but is not a fruit. However, they found that it did not occur. It means that the lightening of VFC mainly occurs on exposure to foods.

Investigators think that the formation of VFC occurs in childhood when children explore various foods. Thus, in some, these groups of neurons may become more stimulated by pizza and in others by fruits. This excitement of a group of neurons decides individuals’ food preferences. It also means that modulating these neuronal responses may help alter food preferences. Though these are still early days, researchers think they are working in the right direction. Now, they must find ways to modulate these neurons, or VFC, that influence food choices. This may help doctors treat eating disorders and even help manage obesity.

The Bottom Line

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By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP