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Mol Metab. 2013 Jun 26;2(3):270-80. doi: 10.1016/j.molmet.2013.06.004. eCollection 2013.

Verbal descriptors influence hypothalamic response to low-calorie drinks.

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The John B. Pierce Laboratory, 290 Congress Avenue, New Haven, CT 06519, United States ; Department of Psychiatry, 300 George Street, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06511, United States.


Messages describing foods constitute a pervasive form of reward cueing. Different descriptions may produce particular appeal depending upon the individual. To examine the extent to which verbal descriptors and individual differences interact to influence food preferences, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain responses to the same low-calorie drinks preceded by the spoken verbal descriptor "treat" or "healthy" in 27 subjects varying in BMI, eating style and reward sensitivity. Subjects also sampled a prototypical milkshake treat. Despite the fact that the verbal descriptor had no influence on pleasantness ratings, preferential responses to the low-calorie drinks labeled "treat" vs. "healthy" were observed in the midbrain and hypothalamus. These same regions were also preferentially responsive to the prototypical treat. These results reveal a previously undocumented influence of verbal descriptors on brain circuits regulating energy homeostasis.


Feeding; Hypothalamus; Midbrain; Neuroimaging; Top-down modulation; Value

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