“The way to a man’s heart is through is stomach,” the old saying claims, but a new study from researchers at Drexel University and the University of California, San Diego has revealed that the saying may also be true when it comes to women.
In research published online in the journal Appetite, first author Dr. Alice Ely, who worked on the study while pursuing her doctoral degree at Drexel, and her colleagues found that the female brain is less apt to respond to romantic cues on an empty stomach than on a full one.
Dr. Ely’s team explored the brain circuitry in women who were hungry, comparing the results to those who were satiated, and found out that young women who had recently eaten experienced higher levels of brain activity in reward-related neural regions in response to romantic images.
The results contradict several previous studies which found that people were, on average, more sensitive to a rewarding stimulus when hungry than when full, she explained in a statement. The results seem to indicate that eating may prepare or sensitize young women to rewards other than food, and also supports the notion that food and sex share the same brain neurocircuitry.
Discussing the research with Dr. Alice Ely
Dr. Ely, whose research centers around how people experience reward (particularly in terms of what people who are obese or have eating disorders find pleasant or important), told redOrbit via email that this research was part of a larger study designed to investigate how hunger and satiety influenced how dieters responded to highly palatable food cues, such as pizza or ice cream.
“I looked at brain response to food pictures in the first study, because for past dieters that’s the reward they’re likely most sensitive to, but we also wanted to include something more general, to see if the response was specific to food or generalized to other kinds of rewards,” she explained. “I chose the ‘sexual’ pictures most positively rated by women from the International Affective Picture System, which actually turned out not to be particularly sexual at all, but were mostly people holding hands and hugging – hence ‘romantic.’”
Dr. Ely said that her team was “definitely surprised by the results,” as typically there is “greater response to appetitive cues when people are hungry, so seeing it after having eaten was notable.” She also pointed out that the study looked at two groups of women – those that had dieted in the past and those with no history of dieting – and found that weight gain-prone dieters tended to be more responsive when full in a region of the previously linked to perceived attractiveness.
The brain’s reward center, the ventral corticolimbic neurocircuitry, responds to such things as food, sex, money, and drugs of abuse, she said, adding that her team’s research was one of the first studies to find that one of those domains can influence the other. What this means, Dr. Ely said, is that one class of rewards could potentially make others seem more exciting or pleasant. She added that she is now working on projects looking at the neural mechanisms for food and monetary reward in search of “ways to clinically target alterations in reward and self-control.”
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