UO research looks to tame food cravings, reverse early adversity

Grants from the National Institutes of Health will enable UO psychology professor to complete a pair of two-year research projects

Elliot BerkmanEUGENE, Ore. — (Oct. 9, 2014) — Why do we find it so hard to say no to fatty, processed foods? How do we reverse the spiral of negative outcomes that occur later in life as a result of early adversity? New research from University of Oregon psychology professor Elliot Berkman aims to answer both of those questions.

Berkman recently received two new grants, a $580,000 award from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and a $347,000 award from the National Cancer Institute. As the director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab, Berkman conducts research examining the behavioral, motivational and neural factors that contribute to human success or failure in achieving long-term goals.

“Both of these projects involve linking basic science knowledge from neuroscience and psychology and translating it into practical, low-cost interventions that will improve people’s health and well-being,” said Berkman, a professor in the Department of Psychology and a member of the UO’s Prevention Science Institute.

The NIA grant (R01AG048840) seeks to reverse the effects of so-called early adversity — a broad term encompassing everything from physical abuse to neglect to the absence of consistent, supportive parenting. Early life adversity has been shown to disrupt the brain's executive functioning, including the ability to think and plan and engage in self-control, which can lead to problems later in life, such as depression, anxiety, obesity and heart disease.

The study builds on Berkman’s research on inhibitory control, which is the ability to stop an unwanted response. Researchers will test if a training intervention that is effective in young adults can prove successful in helping older adults who have experienced early adversity.

“The effects of early adversity on behavior and underlying neural circuitry is a really strong area of research for the University of Oregon. It’s something that we’ve studied quite a bit here,” Berkman said. “With this study, we are applying an intervention that is grounded in neuroscientific knowledge about how adversity disrupts these systems and seeing if we can’t reverse some or all of the damage that was done.”

Berkman’s research on inhibitory control made headlines last year when he published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience examining the impact of popular brain-training programs such as Lumosity. For that study, he employed the UO’s Siemens full-body MRI housed in the Lewis Center for NeuroImaging to map the brain activity of research subjects while they engaged in inhibitory control.

Berkman will use the same powerful tool for a second new research study funded by the National Cancer Institute (R21CA175241). The aim is to develop new strategies to help people overcome their cravings for harmful cancer-promoting foods. Subjects will select their own favorite foods from a list of highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden foods.

“These are the kinds of foods that people will snack on, and will have trouble not eating, even when they are not hungry,” Berkman says. “We will look at people’s brain activation as they attempt to reduce their cravings.”

Once inside the MRI, subjects will be shown images of food and be asked to practice “cognitive self-regulation techniques” — essentially trying to change the way they think about the tasty foods — to reduce their cravings. Their self-reported cravings and brain activity will be recorded. Since research has shown that craving is a strong predictor of eating, the study can be applied to diet.

Just as subjects will select their own foods, they will also choose their own self-regulation techniques based on what works best for them. For some, this may mean finding a way to distract the mind long enough for the craving to go away. Others may find that thinking more broadly about how eating junk food conflicts with their own self images as health-conscious individuals reduces cravings.

“In the past, we would just assign someone to a particular regulation strategy,” Berkman said. “We’re working here on the hypothesis that finding a strategy that works for you because it fits with your values and identity is much more effective.”

Both studies have two-year timelines that involve basic brain research, the development of interventions and seeking to transfer what is learned into policy decision and for use by teachers and caseworkers.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for neuroscience at the UO,” Berkman says. “Our faculty represent a wealth of expertise across the translational spectrum, and we’re coming together to build innovative new tools that will really impact people’s lives for the better.”

Media Contact: Lewis Taylor, 541-541-2816, lewist@uoregon.edu

Source: Elliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology, 541-346-4909, berkman@uoregon.edu

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