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Food-Related Odors and the Reward Circuit: Functional MRI

Abstract

Background and Aim

Eating is one of our basic needs, and food can be extremely rewarding. Different aspects of food can elicit the brain’s reward system. In the present study we set out to investigate differences in brain activity evoked by pleasant food and non-food odors, with a particular focus on dopaminergic brain regions.

Material and Methods

We measured cerebral activity in 23 participants by means of magnetic resonance imaging, who were stimulated with three food odors (strawberry, orange, and mango) and three non-food odors (lily of the valley, jasmine, and lavender). We acquired functional images using a block stimulation design. Participants also evaluated pleasantness, intensity, and edibility of the odorants.

Results

Food odors elicited larger activations in the left postcentral gyrus, the left superior frontal gyrus, and in the midbrain. However, despite careful piloting, food odors were on average rated as significantly more intense than the flower odors. We therefore restricted the subsequent analysis to odors which were matched with regard to intensity and pleasantness. Thus, comparing strawberry and lavender odor yielded significant activations in the right cingulate, the midbrain, and the insula bilaterally. We further extracted the percentage of signal change from the global mean (beta) for all odorants in all subjects’ ventral tegmental area, which revealed stronger signal change when subjects smelled food odors compared to flower odors.

Discussion

These results indicate that food-related odors may activate dopaminergic pathways in the brain, possibly due to a conditioned association.

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Acknowledgments

This study was supported by Takasago Europe Perfumery Laboratory SARL. Johannes Frasnelli holds a research chair at the University of Québec à Trois-Rivières and is supported by the Research Centre of the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of Interest

None of the authors declares a conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants

The research protocol was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Medical Faculty of the Technical University of Dresden (TU Dresden) (application number EK155052012).

Informed Consent

All participants provided written informed consent.

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Correspondence to Thomas Hummel.

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Frasnelli, J., Hummel, C., Bojanowski, V. et al. Food-Related Odors and the Reward Circuit: Functional MRI. Chem. Percept. 8, 192–200 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12078-015-9193-8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12078-015-9193-8

Keywords

  • Smell
  • Olfaction
  • Nose
  • Eating
  • Brain