Heterogeneity in brain reactivity to pleasant and food cues: evidence of sign-tracking in humans

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Aberrant brain reward responses to food-related cues are an implied characteristic of human obesity; yet, findings are inconsistent. To explain these inconsistencies, we aimed to uncover endophenotypes associated with heterogeneity in attributing incentive salience to food cues in the context of other emotionally salient cues; a phenomenon described as sign- vs goal tracking in preclinical models. Data from 64 lean and 88 obese adults who were 35.5 ± 9.4 years old and predominantly women (79%) were analyzed. Participants viewed food-related, pleasant, neutral and unpleasant images while recording electroencephalograph. Late positive potentials were used to assess incentive salience attributed to the visual stimuli. Eating and affective traits were also assessed. Findings demonstrated that obese individuals, in general, do not demonstrate aberrant brain reward responses to food-related cues. As hypothesized, latent profile analysis of the late positive potential uncovered two distinct groups. ‘Sign-trackers’ showed greater responses to food-related cues (P < 0.001) but lower responses to pleasant stimuli (P < 0.001) compared with ‘goal-trackers’. There were proportionally more obese than lean ‘sign-trackers’ (P = 0.03). Obese ‘sign-trackers’ reported significantly higher levels of emotional eating and food craving (P < 0.001). By examining the heterogeneity in brain reactivity to various emotional stimuli, this translational study highlights the need to consider important neurobehavioral endophenotypes of obesity.

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