Curbing Craving: Behavioral and Brain Evidence That Children Regulate Craving When Instructed to Do So but Have Higher Baseline Craving Than Adults
Although one third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, developmental changes in food craving and the ability to regulate craving remain poorly understood. We addressed this knowledge gap by examining behavioral and neural responses to images of appetizing unhealthy foods in individuals ages 6 through 23 years. On close trials (assessing unregulated craving), participants focused on a pictured food's appetitive features. On far trials (assessing effortful regulation), participants focused on a food's visual features and imagined that it was farther away. Across conditions, older age predicted less craving, less striatal recruitment, greater prefrontal activity, and stronger frontostriatal coupling. When effortfully regulating their responses to the images, all participants reported less craving and exhibited greater recruitment of lateral prefrontal cortex and less recruitment of ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Greater body mass predicted less regulation-related prefrontal activity, particularly among children. These results suggest that children experience stronger craving than adults but can also effectively regulate craving. Moreover, the mechanisms underlying regulation may differ for heavy and lean children.