Exaggerated reactivity to food cues involving calorically-dense foods may significantly contribute to food consumption beyond caloric need. Chronic stress, which can induce palatable "comfort" food consumption, may trigger or reinforce neural pathways leading to stronger reactions to highly rewarding foods. We implemented functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess whether chronic stress influences activation in reward, motivation and executive brain regions in response to pictures of high calorie and low calorie foods in thirty women. On separate lab visits, we also assessed food intake from a snack food buffet and circulating cortisol. In women reporting higher chronic stress (HCS), pictures of high calorie foods elicited exaggerated activity in regions of the brain involving reward, motivation, and habitual decision-making. In response to pictures of high calorie food, higher chronic stress was also associated with significant deactivation in frontal regions (BA10; BA46) linked to strategic planning and emotional control. In functional connectivity analysis, HCS strengthened connectivity between amygdala and the putamen, while LCS enhanced connectivity between amygdala and the anterior cingulate and anterior prefrontal cortex (BA10). A hypocortisolemic signature and more consumption of high calorie foods from the snack buffet were observed in the HCS group. These results suggest that persistent stress exposure may alter the brain's response to food in ways that predispose individuals to poor eating habits which, if sustained, may increase risk for obesity.
Keywords: Executive control; Food; Habits; Neuroimaging; Reward; Stress.