STUDY:  A  TORTUROUS  MENU

MANILA, FEBRUARY 23, 2009
(STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - Behold this menu: bacon-egg-cheese sandwich, cinnamon bun, pizza, hamburger with cheese, fried chicken, lasagna, barbecue rib, ice cream, brownie and chocolate cake. It consists of the kinds of foods that in one of his No Reservations shows, Anthony Bourdain and all his other food lover friends said they would want to have if it were their last meal on earth. In fact, these foods were the ones identified as the “favorites” of the subjects of this experiment.

It was some kind of gastronomic torture and this is how it happened. It was an experiment called and naturally, it was not called gastronomic torture but Evidence of Gender Differences in the Ability to Inhibit Brain Activation Elicited by Food Stimulation by Gene-Jack Wang, Nora D. Volkow, Frank Telang, Millard Jayne, Yeming Ma, Kith Pradhan, Wei Zhu, Christopher T. Wong, Panayotis K. Thanos, Allan Geliebter, Anat Biegon, and Joanna S. Fowler published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last Jan. 27. The subjects were asked to look at the food and smell them, and in some cases, even have a drop of the food juices to taste them. But at no time in the experiment were they allowed to eat them. Of course, this was all done in the interest of science as the scientists wanted to know what happens to the brains of men and women when they try to consciously control their appetites. Did they differ? To do this, they had to stimulate their desire for food by serving them the above menu but also asking them to control their own desire for food.

The researchers wanted to find out more about the brain circuitry that is involved when men and women control their hunger. What they found was that when men consciously controlled their desire for food, the activity in brain parts that have to do with emotional regulation, conditioning and motivation significantly decreased. These parts are the amygdala, hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and striatum. The decrease in the fireworks in the orbitofrontal cortex, associated with the drive to eat, among the male subjects also tallied with decreases in self-reports of hunger among the men.

Interestingly, this same finding was observed in an experiment that we can perhaps liken to torture of a different kind. This other experiment showed that amygdala in men also had decreased activity when they were asked to suppress their own sexual arousal brought on by exposure to an erotic video. Amygdala is really the “hot” feature of the brain being recruited into action when we are emotionally responding to stimuli such as food and sex. This experiment showed that with men, their desire for sex is suppressed in the same part that is also suppressed when they control their desire for pizza. I think it is funny to find sex and pizza sharing the same neurological lounging area.

But what about in women? When female subjects tried to control their own desire for food after being stimulated, those efforts did not translate to any significant decrease in the activity in the brain parts where men had them in the same situation. This means that when women tried to control their own appetites, it never went “deep” into the crucial neurological anchors of the desire for food — which is emotional. The researchers said that this may suggest the lower ability of women to suppress their own hunger and thus contribute to differences in obesity rates between genders.

The study I think had one serious limitation which the researchers disclosed: they did not control for the menstrual cycles (famous for affecting the food desires of women) in the study. All I can say as a woman is tsk, tsk tsk. If you have not seen a PMS-ing woman crave for certain foods, then you are missing out on the great deep mysteries of what makes a woman want to eat. You do not know real torture unless you have gotten in the way of a woman in pursuit of the food she wants at those times.

The study also reported a finding which I found funny for two reasons. First, because of how scientifically it was stated: “Women reported lower subjective feeling of hunger even though the activation of limbic and paralimbic brain regions were similar to when they were not exerting cognitive inhibition. This would appear as dissociation between subjective perception of the motivational saliency of the food and the level of activation of brain regions that assign its motivational value.” Second, because of what it really says: it appears that women say they are “less hungry” when they tried to control their hunger even if their brains show they were as hungry as before. In short, they say one thing and their brains show another. Women are really difficult to read. Ha, and that is new?


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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