Dartmouth scientists have found brain scans may be able to predict weight gain and even sexual behaviors for some people by tracking activity levels in the “pleasure centers” of their brains.
Researchers, reporting in The Journal of Neuroscience, said they have been able to demonstrate a connection between certain brain responses – seen in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans -- and appetite-driven behaviors related to food and sex.
"This is one of the first studies in brain imaging that uses the responses observed in the scanner to predict important, real-world outcomes over a long period of time," said researcher Todd Heatherton, a Dartmouth University psychology specialist. "Using brain activity to predict a consequential behavior outside the scanner is pretty novel."
For the study, researchers tracked the brain activity of a group of first-year college students. They keyed in on regions of their brains known as the “reward centers” that can trigger feelings of pleasure and well-being. The scanned the brains of the students while they viewed images of appetizing food items, people and other things. Six months later, their weight and responses to questionnaires regarding sexual behavior were compared with their brain scans.
"The people whose brains responded more strongly to food cues were the people who went on to gain more weight six months later," said lead researcher Kathryn Demos. She said researchers found a similar correlation between sexual images and activity. "Just as cue reactivity to food images was investigated as potential predictors of weight gain, cue reactivity to sexual images was used to predict sexual desire."
The researchers said the findings have significant implications for people who try to control cravings and urges.