By Kuhu Bhattacharya
Are you someone who always has food on their mind?
A late-night crave pizza, chocolate dripping from a freshly baked hot fudge cake or a
spicy bowl of Asian cuisine?
Guess what! A recent study by scientists at MIT concluded that these desires are actually
linked to a particular set of food sensitive neurons found near the Amygdala, in the
ventral visual stream, alongside neurons that respond specifically to faces, bodies, words
and places. Or simply, when we look at foods, a specialized part of our visual cortex
lights up because of these nerve cells.
Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT
The MIT Discovery Food is extremely diverse in its occurrence. A grape looks far from similar to a slice of
pizza. The study conducted by MIT observed a single population that responded similarly
to a wide range of foods.
What they found is that the Ventral Food Component (VFC), which is spread across two
clusters of neurons, located on either side of the Free Fatty Acids (a lipid species released
from the Adipose tissue) uses the concept of Semantic Memory.
Semantic Memory is a type of long-term memory involving the capacity to recall words,
concepts, or numbers, which are essential for the use and understanding of language.
The researchers used data to train a computational model of the VFC, based on
previously developed models to recognise faces, objects and places. One of the
experiments included comparing objects having similar visual attributes such as a banana
and a yellow crescent moon. Computational models were used to analyze much larger
datasets, consisting of thousands of images. Certain simulations pointed towards the VFC
being highly selective for images of food.
Why does this phenomenon happen?
There are many predictions relating to why.
Sensory properties are relevant for recognition of food as a whole, and damage to the
sensory subsystem could give rise to a deficit affecting both natural and manufactured
food. An alternative would recognize the deficit of natural and manufactured food as a
consequence of brain damage – it can be generated from domain-specific hypotheses, but
on different premises. The category food is a good candidate for being one of those that
emerged through evolution given its relevance for the survival of our species.
An integration of visual information with taste or odor would be relevant for food
recognition and less so for other categories of objects such as tools or animals. The neural
basis of this connectivity has been proposed to be the white matter, however, research is
yet to prove the same.
The study’s experimentation and conclusions are fairly new and we are just at the
beginning of unraveling the mysterious components of the mind and its workings. In the
Meanwhile, grab a cup of coffee and think about your hypotheses.
Anne Trafton | MIT News Office. (n.d.). These neurons have food on the brain. MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from https://news.mit.edu/2022/food-neurons-visual-cortex-0825
What happens to our brain when it sees images of food? this research explains. Hindustan Times. (2022, August 26). Retrieved December 10, 2022, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/science/what-happens-to-our-brain-when-it-sees-images-of-food-this-research-explains-101661498724872.html#:~:text=The%20new%20study%20published%20in%20the%20journal%20Current%20Biology%20finds,spots%20these%20food%2Dresponsive%20neurons
Rumiati, R. I., & Foroni, F. (2016, June 9). We are what we eat: How food is represented in our mind/brain - psychonomic bulletin & review. SpringerLink. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-015-0908-2#Sec3