Is It Me or My Hormones? Neuroendocrine Activation Profiles to Visual Food Stimuli Across the Menstrual Cycle

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Abstract

Context:

Homeostatic energy balance is controlled via the hypothalamus, whereas regions controlling reward and cognitive decision-making are critical for hedonic eating. Eating varies across the menstrual cycle peaking at the midluteal phase.

Objective:

To test responses of females with regular cycles during midfollicular and midluteal phase and of users of monophasic oral contraception pills (OCPs) to visual food cues.

Design:

Participants performed a functional magnetic resonance imaging while exposed to visual food cues in four time points: fasting and fed conditions in midfollicular and midluteal phases.

Patients:

Twenty females with regular cycles and 12 on monophasic OCP, aged 18 to 35 years.

Main Outcome Measures:

Activity in homeostatic (hypothalamus), reward (amygdala, putamen and insula), frontal (anterior cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), and visual regions (calcarine and lateral occipital cortex).

Setting:

Tertiary hospital.

Results:

In females with regular cycles, brain regions associated with homeostasis but also the reward system, executive frontal areas, and afferent visual areas were activated to a greater degree during the luteal compared with the follicular phase. Within the visual areas, a dual effect of hormonal and prandial state was seen. In females on monophasic OCPs, characterized by a permanently elevated progesterone concentration, activity reminiscent of the luteal phase was found. Androgen, cortisol, testosterone, and insulin levels were significantly correlated with reward and visual region activation.

Conclusions:

Hormonal mechanisms affect the responses of women's homeostatic, emotional, and attentional brain regions to food cues. The relation of these findings to eating behavior throughout the cycle needs further investigation.

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