J Neurosci. 2014 Apr 2;34(14):5012-22. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3707-13.2014.
Access to highly palatable and calorically dense foods contributes to increasing rates of obesity worldwide. Some have made the controversial argument that consumption of such foods can lead to “food addiction,” yet little is known about how long-term access to highly palatable foods might alter goal-directed learning and decision making.
In the following experiments, rats were given 5 weeks of continuous or restricted daily access to sweetened condensed milk (SCM) before instrumental training for food reward. Subsequently we examined whether goal-directed performance was impaired in these groups using the outcome-devaluation task. Control rats reduced responding following devaluation of the earned outcome as did those with previous continuous access to SCM. Of interest, rats with previous restricted access to SCM responded similarly under the devalued and nondevalued conditions, indicating loss of goal-directed control of responding. To identify whether the loss of goal-directed control was accompanied by differences in neuronal activity, we used c-Fos immunohistochemistry to examine the patterns of activation during devaluation testing. We observed greater c-Fos immunoreactivity in the dorsolateral striatum (DLS) and associated cortical regions in the group that received previous restricted access to SCM and demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to outcome devaluation. Infusion of the AMPA-receptor antagonist CNQX or dopamine D1-receptor antagonist SCH-23390 into the DLS before testing restored goal-directed performance in the restricted SCM group, confirming that this region is essential for habit-based performance. These results indicate that previous diet can alter subsequent learning and activity in the neural circuits that support performance.