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Interactions between metabolic, cognitive and reward processes in appetite

Principal Supervisor: Prof. Suzanne Higgs - School of Psychology

Co-supervisor: Dr. Colin Dourish

PhD project title: Interactions between metabolic, cognitive and reward processes in appetite

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Recent research has helped us understand the processes that lead individuals to prefer certain foods over others and the factors that influence how much an individual is likely to eat. We know that through experience we learn that some foods are very rewarding to eat, which influences our subsequent choices. We also know that signals relating to the ingestion of food arising from the body (metabolic signals) modulate processes in the brain that are important for determining how much a food is desired. Food is less attractive when we have just eaten for this reason. Our food choices are also influenced by cognitive processes such as attention and memory, for example, when thinking about food we are likely to pay attention to food in the environment and may be more likely to eat. Although we know that metabolic signals and cognitive processes directly influence food reward we know very little about how these factors may interact to affect eating. New evidence from our research team suggests that metabolic signals may affect food reward indirectly via changes in higher cognitive functions. The aim of this research project is to investigate this novel idea by examining the effects of eating to satiety and specific metabolic signals on cognitive processes and food reward. This is an innovative approach to the study of food choice and intake and the results will have implications for both theory and practice. Potential practical benefits include the possibility of developing more effective interventions that target cognitive processes to help individuals to control their food intake.


  1. Thomas, J. M., Higgs, S., Dourish, C. T., Hansen, P. C., Harmer, C. J., & McCabe, C. (2015). Satiation attenuates BOLD activity in brain regions involved in reward and increases activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: an fMRI study in healthy volunteers. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 101(4), 697-704.
  2. Higgs, S., Dolmans, D., Humphreys, G. W., & Rutters, F. (2015). Dietary self-control influences top–down guidance of attention to food cues. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 427.
  3. Thomas, J.M. Tomlinson, J.M. Hassan-Smith, Z. Dourish C. T. and Higgs, S. (2014). Effects of the 5-HT2C receptor agonist meta-chlorophenylpiperazine on appetite, food intake and emotional processing in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology 231: 2449-59.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Food Security

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Experimental study of food intake and food choice
  • fMRI
  • Genotyping
  • Drug administration

Contact: Professor Suzanne Higgs, University of Birmingham