Visual attention and food salience in obesity

Obesity is an increasingly significant source of morbidity and mortality in the United States.  While regulation of feeding behavior and energy expenditure is a complex, multifactorial process, there is growing evidence from both animal studies and human neuroimaging data to suggest that dysregulation of the reward system, in a comparable manner to drug addiction, may occur with exposure to palatable foods, and may be implicated in the development of obesity. 

It is thought that changes in the reward pathway of the brain by drugs draws attention to drug-related stimuli, and the resulting attentional bias leads to increased craving and drug use.  Exposure to drug cues has been shown to induce craving and ‘wanting’ in addicts; we hypothesize that exposure to visual food cues may contribute to overeating and obesity.  As visual food cues are particularly prominent in society, understanding the implications of exposure to visual food cues in the development and maintenance of obesity is of great importance in developing potential behavioral therapies, environmental alterations, and public health measures in combating the obesity epidemic. This study will add to current research in the field of obesity by determining if obese people have altered attention mechanisms in response to food cue exposure.  

Attentional bias for drug-related cues has been demonstrated in a number of addictive substances including alcohol, nicotine, opiates, and cannabis.  Attentional bias to visual cues can be effectively measured using a combination of eye-tracking technology with a visual probe task.  We will use this methodology to explore attentional biases to food stimuli and expand research in the relationships between processes of addiction and obesity.  Our primary aims are to determine whether:

  1. Attentional bias for food differs between normal weight and obese individuals.
  2. Attentional bias in normal weight and obese individuals differs with high calorie and low calorie food cues.
  3. The fasting versus fed state alters attentional bias for food in normal weight and obese individuals.
  4. The fasting versus fed state alters attentional bias for high calorie versus low calorie food in normal weight and obese individuals.  

As visual food cues are prominent in society, understanding the implications of exposure to visual food cues in the development and maintenance of obesity is of great importance in developing potential behavioral therapies, environmental alterations, and public health measures in combating the obesity epidemic.  Understanding the contribution of visual attention and food cues to obesity will open an unexplored area in both studying and treating obesity.