This is your brain on food: Studies reveal how diet affects brain functions

Studies released in October 2012 explore the neurological component of dietary disorders, uncovering evidence that the brain's biological mechanisms may contribute to obesity, diabetes, binge eating and the allure of the high-calorie meal.

Scientists are ultimately searching for new ways to treat diet-related disorders while raising awareness that diet and obesity affect mental as well as physical health. Several studies were presented at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Among the new findings are these observations:

  • Being obese appears to affect cognitive function, requiring more effort to complete a complex decision-making task.
  • Brain images suggest that when people skip breakfast, the pleasure-seeking part of the brain is activated by pictures of high-calorie food. Skipping breakfast also appears to increase food consumption at lunch.
  • A high-sugar diet may affect insulin receptors in the brain and dull spatial learning and memory skills.

"These are fascinating studies because they show the brain is an often overlooked yet significant organ in an array of dietary disorders," said Paul Kenny, PhD, of The Scripps Research Institute in Florida, an expert on addiction and obesity. "Many of these findings have the potential to lead to new interventions that can help reduce the ranks of the obese, helping those who struggle daily with dietary decisions reassert control over what they eat."

This research was supported by national funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations.