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J Neurosci. 2011 Jul 27;31(30):11077-87. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6383-10.2011.

Focusing attention on the health aspects of foods changes value signals in vmPFC and improves dietary choice.

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Computation and Neural Systems Division, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.


Attention is thought to play a key role in the computation of stimulus values at the time of choice, which suggests that attention manipulations could be used to improve decision-making in domains where self-control lapses are pervasive. We used an fMRI food choice task with non-dieting human subjects to investigate whether exogenous cues that direct attention to the healthiness of foods could improve dietary choices. Behaviorally, we found that subjects made healthier choices in the presence of health cues. In parallel, stimulus value signals in ventromedial prefrontal cortex were more responsive to the healthiness of foods in the presence of health cues, and this effect was modulated by activity in regions of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that the neural mechanisms used in successful self-control can be activated by exogenous attention cues, and provide insights into the processes through which behavioral therapies and public policies could facilitate self-control.

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