Obesity is a major epidemic in many parts of the world. One of the main factors contributing to obesity is overconsumption of high-fat and high-calorie food, which is driven by the rewarding properties of these types of food. Previous studies have suggested that dysfunction in reward circuits may be associated with overeating and obesity. The nature of this dysfunction, however, is still unknown. Here, we demonstrate impairment in reward-based associative learning specific to food in obese women. Normal-weight and obese participants performed an appetitive reversal learning task in which they had to learn and modify cue-reward associations. To test whether any learning deficits were specific to food reward or were more general, we used a between-subject design in which half of the participants received food reward and the other half received money reward. Our results reveal a marked difference in associative learning between normal-weight and obese women when food was used as reward. Importantly, no learning deficits were observed with money reward. Multiple regression analyses also established a robust negative association between body mass index and learning performance in the food domain in female participants. Interestingly, such impairment was not observed in obese men. These findings suggest that obesity may be linked to impaired reward-based associative learning and that this impairment may be specific to the food domain.
Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.