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The Brain on Broccoli: Jennifer Nasser Shows Rachael Ray

April 22, 2014

Rachael Ray, a well-known television personality and celebrity chef recently invited Jennifer Nasser, PhD, an associate professor of Nutrition Sciences at the College of Nursing and Health Professions to join her on set to explain human brain responses to certain foods. Christoffer Van Tulleken, MD, and Alexander Van Tulleken MD, who met Nasser while filming a BBC Horizon documentary, recommended her to Rachael Ray. Ray was interested in hearing about the cutting-edge research Nasser conducts here at the College.

The human brain is the most fascinating organ in the body. It controls everything from picking up a pencil to resisting a food you may not enjoy. Nasser’s goal was to show the audience the incredible responses the brain has to different foods through her research with electroretinography (ERG) techniques, which is a “non-invasive technique to monitor brain dopamine response to oral food stimulation.”

“The experiment tested how the control center of the brain responded to different foods. The sides are like the breaks which tell you to stop,” explained Nasser. “The middle part right above your nose is like the gas pedal, which tells you to keep going.” Nasser attached the functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) device to the audience participant’s forehead. This device has the ability to track brain waves to show how the brain reacts to certain oral food stimuli in real-time. While the fNIRS device was being used, the participant was required to eat a bowl of broccoli for five minutes and a bowl of chocolate for another five minutes. Following the conclusion of the experiment, a graph was shown to Ray and the audience, demonstrating the brain’s stopping signals in response to chocolate and broccoli.

The results were eye-opening. The graphs showed that in response to broccoli, the stopping signals were strong, telling the participant to stop eating. In response to the chocolate, however, the stopping signals did not kick in, which translated to the brain telling the participant to keep eating. As shown below, the “most favorite” graph shows the signals in response to chocolate, which appear to stay constant. The “least favorite” graph shows the signals in response to broccoli, which appear to increase strongly toward the end of the five-minute eating period.

As concluded by Nasser’s research, the brain favored the consumption of chocolate dramatically more than it did broccoli.

“The Rachel Ray show was a great opportunity to showcase the research being conducted at the College,” said Nasser. “I was happy to be on the show and have an opportunity to showcase my work.  Rachael Ray is a gracious host and just as ‘real’ in person as she is on TV.”