Journal article Open Access

Love at first taste: Activation in reward-related brain regions during single-trial naturalistic appetitive conditioning in humans

Lender, Anja; Miedl, Stephan F.; Wilhelm, Frank H.; Miller, Joe; Blechert, Jens

Palatable food can trigger appetitive responses, such as salivation and approach tendencies. Though evolutionarily functional, these conditioned responses can encourage overeating and obesity when food is abundant. The current study examines the neural correlates of ‘denovo’ Pavlovian appetitive conditioning, pairing one class of unknown objects (conditioned stimuli, CS) with their sweet taste (unconditioned stimulus, US) during a single trial. To do so, 23 participants consumed unknown (marzipan) objects of one particular color (CS+) while only interacting with control stimuli of different color and shape (CS-). After this single-trial conditioning procedure, participants viewed and rated images of the marzipan figures and the control objects during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Relative to the CS-, the CS+ elicited stronger activation in the dorsal striatum, a brain region associated with cue-reward coupling. Furthermore, conditioning effects in subjective ‘craving’, defined as increased palatability and desire to eat, were observed, and these were positively related to conditioning effects in the amygdala, a brain region associated with the need-dependent value of a reward. Thus, the study identified reward-related brain regions involved in single-trial appetitive learning, thereby providing a potential mechanism that contributes to the etiology of food craving. These findings might help to understand clinically relevant food cravings in individuals with eating or weight related concerns and might support the development of extinction based treatments.

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