Revealing MRIs

Coca-Cola mural in Stroud, Oklahoma.

Coca-Cola mural in Stroud, Oklahoma. Image courtesy flickr user KB35.

After watching POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about product placement), I’m looking at advertisements very differently. No one product is stuck in my head – instead, what I’m thinking about is the science sliced in the center of the film.

During filming, Morgan Spurlock joins a study that looks at MRIs of subjects’ brains while they watch advertisements—from cars to Cokes—to see which ones have the strongest effect on brain chemistry. After reviewing the images, a technician at the lab points out the moment when Spurlock was shown a Coca-Cola ad and says something like, “Here’s the release of dopamine. That’s addiction.” Well, that’s not exactly addiction, but it can definitely be the start.

The release of dopamine is a natural process in your brain; in fact, it’s what tells you to eat lunch. Because it results in feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, the release of dopamine is often referred to as a reward process. This ensures that you repeat the act (and therefore, don’t starve to death). Once you’re finished with your lunch, your brain should tell the reward process to settle down. Drugs can mess with this cycle, though, causing dopamine to be released and stay activated for long periods of time. This is where addiction is thought to originate – rewards that great can be impossible to ignore. But at the moment his brain lights up, Spurlock isn’t taking a drug – not even a legal one like the caffeine you’d find in a Coke. He’s just looking at an ad for the drink.

Today, one-third of American adults are obese; the second leading cause of preventable death is related to obesity. Brain imaging is being increasingly used for studies on eating behaviors; a recent one from Yale saw subjects demonstrating addict-like responses to food cues. The design has its limitations, but I’ll being paying close attention as more like it come out. Like Spurlock, I can’t tune out the ads – or turn off my brain – but at least I know a little more about what they are doing to my neurons.

Christy Martin is an editorial intern at CHF.

Love’s Chemistry [Periodic Tabloid]
Binge Eaters' Dopamine Levels Spike at Sight, Smell of Food [EurekAlert!]
The Taste of Coke Is All In Your Head [Wired Science]

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