The abundant exposure to food cues in our environment is one of the main drivers of overconsumption. Food evaluation is important for the regulation of food intake by the brain and it's interaction with hunger state. Children are especially susceptible to food cues. Understanding the mechanisms behind this regulation in healthy individuals across the life span can help to elucidate the mechanisms underlying overconsumption and aid the development of future obesity prevention strategies. Few functional neuroimaging studies have been done in children and elderly. Furthermore, it is unknown how hunger state affects neural food cue reactivity in these groups, since this has not been examined consistently.
We examined the effects of hunger state and age on the brain responses to low- and high calorie foods. On two mornings, 122 participants (17 children; 38 teens; 36 adults; 31 elderly) performed a food image viewing task while being scanned using fMRI, either fasted or sated.
Hunger induced greater activation during high versus low calorie food image viewing than satiety in the bilateral dorsomedial (dmPFC) and in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) across all age groups. There was no significant main effect of age group on high versus low calorie food image viewing and no interaction between age group and hunger state.
The greater activation of the dlPFC across all age groups during high calorie food image viewing in a fasted state might reflect increased inhibitory control in response to these foods. This may underlie the ability to resist overconsumption of high calorie foods. Furthermore, increased medial prefrontal cortex activation during hunger might reflect increased reward value of high calorie foods, which declines with satiation. Further studies are needed to better understand these results. Notably, overweight and obese individuals should be included to examine whether these responses are altered by weight status across the life span.