Europe-wide study of relationship between food, hunger and brain

7 March 2011

A €9 million EU-funded project will bring together scientists from 19 European labs to investigate how our body responds to food at different stages in our lives.

The five-year study, co-ordinated by the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute for Nutrition and Health, will fill the gaps in our understanding of the relationship between food, the gut and our brain and how this regulates our feelings of hunger and satiety or feeling full.

The Full4Health project brings together researchers from Aberdeen, plus another four partners in the UK; Greece; the Netherlands; Norway; France, Germany and Denmark.

A major element of the study is to examine the body’s responses to food in lean and overweight males and females from four different age groups — children, teenagers, adults and the elderly.

It is also hoped that the findings will help inform the food industry as to how food could be formulated in the future to help tackle obesity as well as under-nutrition in the elderly, and those recovering from illness.

Professor Julian Mercer, head of obesity and metabolic health at the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute for Nutrition and Health, is co-ordinating the study which comprises a number of different work streams.

He said: “The Full4Health study will involve a range of different projects which will investigate the mechanics of hunger, satiety and feeding behaviour and how these interact and change over the years.

“One long-term hope is to find a food solution — probably a reformulation of food — to help with the problem of inappropriate over-consumption of calories as well as the low caloric intake often found in elderly people who don’t have the appetite they once had.

“Obesity is a major public health problem and although a number of drugs have reached the market for its treatment, most have been subsequently withdrawn due to the emergence of unacceptable side effects. This has provided extra impetus on efforts to develop dietary strategies to tackle the problem.”

Professor Mercer said: “Most dietary studies tend to focus on a specific population group, usually middle aged overweight men. But we need to understand how responses to food differ in our bodies across the different age groups. This is the first study of its kind that we know of to take this approach. ”

This part of Full4Health will take place in Aberdeen and Athens and volunteers aged between eight and 75 will be recruited next year. A total of 250 will be recruited in Aberdeen.

Professor Mercer said: “We are working with a food manufacturer on a yoghurt type of pre-meal supplement containing protein and energy that our volunteers will take before lunch.

“Using a number of measurements such as questionnaires to measure hunger, computer tasks to assess attitudes to food, blood samples to measure metabolites and hormones and, in some cases MRI scans to measure brain activity, we will then monitor how the food interacts with the body’s signalling systems to determine what is eaten at the subsequent meal.

“We’ll measure what happens when the food passes down the gastrointestinal tract to the stomach and what signals go to the brain to say you have eaten enough or need to eat more.

“Quite a lot is known about the signalling between the gut and the brain which tells us when we feel full, although research has tended to overlook some parts the brain that are involved in this signal integration. Comparatively little is known about the impact of food on these signals and how different types of food might be exploited to reduce calorie intake.

“We want to piece together all these different elements and see how they all interact with each other. Ultimately we would like to be able to harness the power of our natural physiology, and our complex interactions with food, to demonstrate the potential of a food solution to the health problems of over- and under-consumption of calories throughout our lives.”


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