When deciding which foods to eat, children take into account what they infer as their mother’s food preference for them, confirms a new study. The paper, which is published in Nature Communications this week, also pinpoints specific areas of the brain that become activated during children’s food choices.
Food decisions during childhood can establish lifelong, health-related, behavioural patterns. However, the neural mechanisms underlying children’s decision making, including during food choice, are not well understood.
Amanda Bruce and colleagues combined behavioural tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data in order to study behaviour and brain activity during food choice in 25 children between eight and 14 years of age. Using images of food items, they first asked the children to rate the taste and the health attributes of 60 food items, including apples, broccoli, French fries and marshmallows. Children were either asked to what degree they would like to eat a given food item (their personal choice), or to guess the likelihood of their mother choosing a given item for them to eat. The results, once incorporated into a behavioural model, showed that the children’s personal food choices were best explained as resulting from a combination of both their own taste ratings and their inferred mother’s preference for them. fMRI data further showed that activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) - a brain area implicated in reward value - was correlated with the children’s own food choices, whereas activation in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) - a region involved in self-control - was correlated with their mothers’ inferred food choice.
In addition, the authors found that, when children made their preferred choices, dlPFC had an inhibitory influence on brain activity in the vmPFC. These results suggest that, on a neural level, the preferences of caregivers can have regulatory effects on decision making in developing children.