October 16, 2006 in Nation/World

Just the sight of chocolate can make some people drool

Tina Hesman Saey St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 

ATLANTA – Some people have chocolate on the brain.

A new study of people who crave chocolate shows that eating chocolate, or even just looking at a picture of it, turns on pleasure centers in the brains of cravers far more than in people who don’t crave the confection. Viewing pictures of chocolate also activates an area of the brain known to be involved in drug addiction.

The study, by Ciara McCabe and Edmund T. Rolls of Oxford University in England, was one of more than 14,000 presentations slated for the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience this week. The meeting draws more than 35,000 brain scientists and doctors each year, making it one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.

McCabe gathered seven chocolate cravers and eight non-cravers for her experiment. All of the subjects completed a survey to confirm their chocolate craving status. The differences were clear. Some people really don’t crave chocolate, a fact McCabe – an admitted chocolate craver – finds incredible.

She placed the volunteers in a functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) machine – a scanner that measures activity in the brain. Once the people were in the scanner McCabe gave them a taste of liquid chocolate. The cravers and non-cravers registered the taste to the same degree in parts of the brain involved in detecting taste. But people who crave chocolate perceived the taste as more pleasant than did the non-cravers. The difference showed up in the brain scan and in the volunteers’ ratings of the experience.

McCabe showed her friends pictures of chocolate to find the yummiest-looking examples to use in the experiment, she said. When she showed the mouth-watering pictures of chocolate to cravers, the ventral striatum, a part of the brain involved in drug addiction, turned on. Non-cravers showed no activity in that part of the brain.

Viewing a picture of chocolate while tasting it increased the pleasure of the experience for cravers and non-cravers alike, but the cravers responded far more to the chocolate combination than the non-cravers did. The reaction was particularly strong in a part of the brain called the pregenual cingulate cortex, a reward and pleasure center.

The researchers don’t yet know why some people crave chocolate while others don’t. The answer could help scientists understand people’s food preferences and eating patterns. Such knowledge could be important for helping people change their diets or control cravings.

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