Developmental differences in the brain response to unhealthy food cues: an fMRI study of children and adults

Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Dec;104(6):1515-1522. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.137240. Epub 2016 Nov 2.


Background: Food cues are omnipresent and may trigger overconsumption. In the past 2 decades, the prevalence of childhood obesity has increased dramatically. Because children's brains are still developing, especially in areas important for inhibition, children may be more susceptible than adults to tempting food cues.

Objective: We examined potential developmental differences in children's and adults' responses to food cues to determine how these responses relate to weight status.

Design: We included 27 children aged 10-12 y and 32 adults aged 32-52 y. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data were acquired during a food-viewing task in which unhealthy and healthy food pictures were presented.

Results: Children had a stronger activation in the left precentral gyrus than did adults in response to unhealthy compared with healthy foods. In children, unhealthy foods elicited stronger activation in the right inferior temporal and middle occipital gyri, left precentral gyrus, bilateral opercular part of the inferior frontal gyrus, left hippocampus, and left middle frontal gyrus. Adults had stronger activation in the bilateral middle occipital gyrus and the right calcarine sulcus for unhealthy compared with healthy foods. Children with a higher body mass index (BMI) had lower activation in the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while viewing unhealthy compared with healthy foods. In adults there was no correlation between BMI and neural response to unhealthy compared with healthy foods.

Conclusions: Unhealthy foods might elicit more attention both in children and in adults. Children had stronger activation while viewing unhealthy compared with healthy foods in areas involved in reward, motivation, and memory. Furthermore, children activated a motivation and reward area located in the motor cortex more strongly than did adults in response to unhealthy foods. Finally, children with a higher BMI had less activation in inhibitory areas in response to unhealthy foods, which may mean they are more susceptible to tempting food cues. This trial was registered at as NTR4255.

Keywords: childhood obesity; children; fMRI; food viewing; healthy food.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Attention
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Child
  • Cues
  • Diet, Healthy
  • Female
  • Food*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reward

Associated data

  • NTR/NTR4255