Neural vulnerability factors that increase risk for future weight gain

Psychol Bull. 2016 May;142(5):447-71. doi: 10.1037/bul0000044. Epub 2016 Feb 8.


Theorists have proposed several neural vulnerability factors that may increase overeating and consequent weight gain. Early cross-sectional imaging studies could not determine whether aberrant neural responsivity was a precursor or consequence of overeating. However, recent prospective imaging studies examining predictors of future weight gain and response to obesity treatment, and repeated-measures imaging studies before and after weight gain and loss have advanced knowledge of etiologic processes and neural plasticity resulting from weight change. The present article reviews evidence from prospective studies using imaging and behavioral measures reflecting neural function, as well as randomized experiments with humans and animals that are consistent or inconsistent with 5 neural vulnerability theories for excessive weight gain. Extant data provide strong support for the incentive sensitization theory of obesity and moderate support for the reward surfeit theory, inhibitory control deficit theory, and dynamic vulnerability model of obesity, which attempted to synthesize the former theories into a single etiologic model. However, existing data provide only minimal support for the reward deficit theory. Findings are synthesized into a new working etiologic model that is based on current scientific knowledge. Important directions for future studies, which have the potential to support or refute this working etiologic model, are delineated. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / pathology*
  • Obesity / psychology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Random Allocation
  • Risk Factors
  • Weight Gain / physiology*