Objective: Appetite and weight changes are common but variable diagnostic markers in major depressive disorder: some depressed individuals manifest increased appetite, while others lose their appetite. Many of the brain regions implicated in appetitive responses to food have also been implicated in depression. It is thus remarkable that there exists no published research comparing the neural responses to food stimuli of depressed patients with increased versus decreased appetites.
Method: Using functional MRI, brain activity was compared in unmedicated depressed patients with increased or decreased appetite and healthy control subjects while viewing photographs of food and nonfood objects. The authors also measured how resting-state functional connectivity related to subjects' food pleasantness ratings.
Results: Within putative reward regions, depressed participants with increased appetites exhibited greater hemodynamic activity to food stimuli than both those reporting appetite decreases and healthy control subjects. In contrast, depressed subjects experiencing appetite loss exhibited hypoactivation within a region of the mid-insula implicated in interoception, with no difference observed in this region between healthy subjects and those with depression-related appetite increases. Mid-insula activity was negatively correlated with food pleasantness ratings of depressed participants with increased appetites, and its functional connectivity to reward circuitry was positively correlated with food pleasantness ratings.
Conclusions: Depression-related increases in appetite are associated with hyperactivation of putative mesocorticolimbic reward circuitry, while depression-related appetite loss is associated with hypoactivation of insular regions that support monitoring the body's physiological state. Importantly, the interactions among these regions also contribute to individual differences in the depression-related appetite changes.