(HealthDay News) – After sleep restriction, unhealthy food activates reward centers in the brain; and sleep deprivation impairs brain activity in areas of the frontal lobe responsible for making complex choices.

Sabrina Wolfe, PhD, from St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, and colleagues conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the neural circuitry implicated in the response to unhealthy and healthy food stimuli after restricted or habitual sleep for 25 normal-weight adults. They found that, relative to healthy food stimuli, unhealthy foods led to increased activation in the superior and middle temporal gyrus, hypothalamus, right inferior frontal gyrus, right superior and inferior parietal lobules, and right lateral insula, following a period of restricted sleep. These differences in activity patterns were not seen after habitual sleep.

Stephanie M. Greer, from the University of California in Berkeley, and colleagues used fMRI and a food desire task to investigate the impact of sleep deprivation on central brain mechanisms underlying food appraisal. Approximately 20 adults rated their current desire for 80 foods after a night of normal sleep and after 24 hours of deprivation. In response to desired foods, sleep deprivation selectively and significantly impaired activity in high-order regions, specifically the right anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate. In classical subcortical reward regions and basic taste perception networks, equivalent reactivity was noted after sleep deprivation and normal sleep.

“These results shed light on how the brain becomes impaired by sleep deprivation, leading to improper food choices,” Greer said in a statement.

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