A recent study has allegedly concluded that food commercials increased brain activity in adolescent viewers regardless of body weight. Ashley Gearhardt, et al., “Relation of Obesity to Neural Activation in Response to Food Commercials,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, May 2013. Researchers with Yale University’s Rudd Center for Policy & Obesity, the University of Michigan and the Oregon Research Institute apparently used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of 30 adolescents described as either normal weight (10 participants), overweight (eight participants) or obese (12 participants), who viewed a TV show interspersed with 20 food and 20 non-food commercials. The study’s authors then asked participants “to list five commercials that they had seen during the television program they just viewed to measure top-of-mind recall” and “to rate how much they liked the products/companies featured in the advertisements on a 5-point Likert scale” and “how familiar they were with the advertisements on a 5-point Likert scale.”

In addition to the self-reported measure, which suggested that study participants had greater recall for food commercials compared to non-food commercials, the fMRI results evidently showed that “adolescents generally exhibited greater activation in regions implicated in visual processing (e.g., middle occipital gyrus), attention (e.g., parietal lobes), cognitive processing (e.g., inferior temporal gyrus, posterior cerebellar lobe), movement (e.g., anterior cerebellar lobe), somatosensory response (postcentral gyrus), and reward (i.e., OFC, ACC) during food commercials relative to non-food commercials and the television show.” Moreover, the study’s authors noted, “lean relative to obese adolescents exhibited greater neural response to food commercials in regions related to greater difficulty with weight loss/maintenance,” suggesting that “even adolescents [who] are not currently exhibiting signs of pathology (e.g., normal-weight) may be impacted by commercials in a manner that might shape future eating tendencies.”

“It appears that food advertising is better at getting into the mind and memory of kids,” lead author Ashley Gearhardt was quoted as saying. “This makes sense because our brains are hard-wired to get excited in response to delicious foods.” Additional details about Gearhardt’s recent work appear in Issues 458 and 481 of this Update.