The cognitive neuroscience of overeating: normative and clinical studies of goal-driven and stimulus-driven responses


  • Prof Paul Fletcher

    University of Cambridge

Project summary

Obesity is a serious global problem with profound implications for physical and mental health. It is clearly driven by our environment but there is a strong inherited component too. Genetic studies strongly suggest that vulnerability to obesity resides in the brain, how it processes the environment, how it responds to reward stimuli such as food and how it leads us to choose actions and options that we know are not healthy. Understanding brain processes requires that we take into account external signals, such as the sight of food, as well as bodily signals of hunger together with existing learned valuations of factors such as health and taste. For example, changes in gut hormone levels can make even very bland foods seem appetising while some foods are so attractive that we override powerful signals telling us that we are not hungry.

We want to understand this complex brain-body-environment relationship, because we cannot understand overeating and obesity until we do so. We will study healthy people and in patients with unique and specific disturbances to brain circuits and to gastrointestinal signalling.

The findings will help improve understanding of the causes of obesity. By elucidating variation in the underlying mechanisms, this work will provide new insights into over-eating.