Thoughts for food neuroscience

with Raffaella Ida Rumiati

In recent years there has been a growing interest in finding out how our brain processes food cues and directs our food choices. Food is indeed essential in our life because it provides the energy that keeps us alive, but it is also prompts hedonic experiences. Although some substantial knowledge has been acquired to date about the mechanisms underlying food perception and choice in humans, food cognitive neuroscience is a field that is still in its infancy. In addition to the advances in basic research, this area of enquiry has a lot of translational potential. Disorders in eating behaviors have become widespread at the population level, especially in developed, industrialized countries where the food availability is overwhelming. The statistics on eating disorders are such that they now constitute a growing preoccupation for the public health systems and societies in general. Researchers contribute towards alleviating these concerns by providing findings that can be translated in hopefully successful treatments.

In my presentation I will address several research strands that have been developed in my laboratory “Neuroscience and Society” at the International School of Advanced Studies, in Trieste. We carried out several studies using different methodologies and techniques to answer food related questions. First we asked ourselves how food characteristics such as whether it is natural food or manufactured, or its color, influence our visual recognition. Then, using the evoked-related potentials and fMRI, we tested the neural underpinnings of food recognition with respect to food characteristics defined as above, as well as characteristics of the individuals such as the body mass index or other physiological states. Finally several studies have investigated the extent to which these neurocognitive mechanisms are affected in neurological populations such as in patients with different types of dementia or Parkinson’s disease. A final study involving centenarians will address the issue of how our knowledge about food might have changed through last century.

A conclusive message is that to nudge individuals to adopt sustainable eating behaviours we must understand better how individuals recognize and evaluate food. Even large scale policies cannot be implement with the hope of being successful if they are not scientifically guided.