Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate. I can’t even begin to describe how much I love it. To give you guys a bit of context on my never-ending craving, my mom started a chocolate company while I was growing up. On a daily basis, my whole house smelt of freshly rolled truffles, baked brownies and chocolate cookies. Now, everywhere I go, I need to make sure that I have chocolate available at all times. In my Parisian dorm room, I have at least five chocolate bars in stock. The satisfactory feeling of biting into a creamy piece mid-essay is unbeatable.
Walking around Paris, I love to stop at boulangeries and try whatever they have to offer, chocolate style. Some of my favorites so far include pain au chocolat, opera cake, and chocolate crepes. I recently spent the afternoon vising my brother and his wife in Belgium, and was in chocolate heaven. The Belgian chocolate brownie I had was life changing. My chocolate adventures continued this past Friday when I went to Le Musée Gourmand du Chocolat in Paris. It was quite the delicious experience; I indulged in cinnamon hot chocolate, praline, and other rare chocolates from all over the world. Best afternoon yet.
My current neuroscience mindset made me start to wonder how my chocolate cravings translate to brain activity. In a study by Frankort et al. the researchers studied the short-term effects of chocolate cravings on behavior, specifically how neuroimaging can predict chocolate consumption. The two different experimental groups consisted of participants who smelt chocolate and participants who didn’t, with 17 females in each group. They compared self-reported craving to brain activation showed by fMRI scans which measures the change in blood flow in different brain areas. Previous studies have found that prolonged chocolate exposure, like the chocolate scent group, leads to a decrease in craving. This effect was not observed in the Frankort et al. study; perhaps because the fMRI scan interrupted the 1-hour scent exposure sessions, which displays a weakness of the study since the interruptions don’t accurately model a real life situation.
Primarily, Frankort et al. found that neural activation in the right caudate and the left lateral frontopolar cortex predicted chocolate intake in the exposure group. The left lateral frontopolar cortex and the right caudate are both associated with reward and memory (Pochon et al. 2002), which explains the chocolate consumption. Furthermore, the left dorsolateral and mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) correlated negatively with consumption in the control group, meaning the activation predicted decreased intake. These findings make sense since this area is associated with cognitive control (I would guess that I don’t have a very active left and mid-dorsolateral PFC when it comes to chocolate consumption). In both groups, the right anterior PFC, activation was associated with chocolate intake. This region is associated with cognitive behavior, planning and decision making (Wikipedia).
These regions of activation represent a better measure of future chocolate intake than self-reported craving, meaning that my brain knows I’m going to crave chocolate better than I am consciously aware of! The most surprising fact from this study was that overall self-reported chocolate craving did not correlate with intake. Meaning, just because I think I crave chocolate doesn’t mean I necessarily crave it. To really know if I crave something I would have to check my brain scans! A significant weakness of this study was how craving was measured by asking participants one question. Future studies should include a more appropriate measure of craving with multiple questions, since just having one may not fully explain the results.
This newfound knowledge on self reported craving has definitely made me rethink my chocolate consumption. Is a craving really a craving without brain activation? Whatever the answer to this question, I’m going to eat all the chocolate I can in this last week! Maybe I should rename the program title to Neuroscience, Chocolate and Paris.
Frankort A, Roefs A, Siep N, Roebroeck A, Havermans R, Jansen A. (2015) Neural predictors of chocolate intake following chocolate exposure. Appetite. 87:98-107
Pochon JB, Levy R, Fossati P, Lehericy S, Poline JB, Pillon B, Le Bihan D, Dubois B (2002) The neural system that bridges reward and cognition in humans. An fMRI study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99: 5669–5674