Attentional bias to food images associated with elevated weight and future weight gain: an fMRI study

Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Sep;19(9):1775-83. doi: 10.1038/oby.2011.168. Epub 2011 Jun 16.


Behavioral studies reveal that obese vs. lean individuals show attentional bias to food stimuli. Yet research has not investigated this relation using objective brain imaging or tested whether attentional bias to food stimuli predicts future weight gain, which are important aims given the prominence of food cues in the environment. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine attentional bias in 35 adolescent girls ranging from lean to obese using an attention network task involving food and neutral stimuli. BMI correlated positively with speed of behavioral response to both appetizing food stimuli and unappetizing food stimuli, but not to neutral stimuli. BMI correlated positively with activation in brain regions related to attention and food reward, including the anterior insula/frontal operculum, lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC), and superior parietal lobe, during initial orientation to food cues. BMI also correlated with greater activation in the anterior insula/frontal operculum during reallocation of attention to appetizing food images and with weaker activation in the medial OFC and ventral pallidum during reallocation of attention to unappetizing food images. Greater lateral OFC activation during initial orientation to appetizing food cues predicted future increases in BMI. Results indicate that overweight is related to greater attentional bias to food cues and that youth who show elevated reward circuitry responsivity during food cue exposure are at increased risk for weight gain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology
  • Attention*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Diet / psychology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Food*
  • Humans
  • Hyperphagia / pathology
  • Hyperphagia / physiopathology
  • Hyperphagia / psychology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Obesity / pathology
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Overweight / pathology
  • Overweight / physiopathology
  • Overweight / psychology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Reward
  • Weight Gain*