Acute sleep deprivation enhances the brain's response to hedonic food stimuli: an fMRI study

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Mar;97(3):E443-7. doi: 10.1210/jc.2011-2759. Epub 2012 Jan 18.


Context: There is growing recognition that a large number of individuals living in Western society are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation is associated with an increase in food consumption and appetite. However, the brain regions that are most susceptible to sleep deprivation-induced changes when processing food stimuli are unknown.

Objective: Our objective was to examine brain activation after sleep and sleep deprivation in response to images of food.

Intervention: Twelve normal-weight male subjects were examined on two sessions in a counterbalanced fashion: after one night of total sleep deprivation and one night of sleep. On the morning after either total sleep deprivation or sleep, neural activation was measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in a block design alternating between high- and low-calorie food items. Hunger ratings and morning fasting plasma glucose concentrations were assessed before the scan, as were appetite ratings in response to food images after the scan.

Main outcome measures: Compared with sleep, total sleep deprivation was associated with an increased activation in the right anterior cingulate cortex in response to food images, independent of calorie content and prescan hunger ratings. Relative to the postsleep condition, in the total sleep deprivation condition, the activation in the anterior cingulate cortex evoked by foods correlated positively with postscan subjective appetite ratings. Self-reported hunger after the nocturnal vigil was enhanced, but importantly, no change in fasting plasma glucose concentration was found.

Conclusions: These results provide evidence that acute sleep loss enhances hedonic stimulus processing in the brain underlying the drive to consume food, independent of plasma glucose levels. These findings highlight a potentially important mechanism contributing to the growing levels of obesity in Western society.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Appetite / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Food*
  • Humans
  • Hunger / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reward*
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology*