Sleep deprivation selectively upregulates an amygdala–hypothalamic circuit involved in food reward

Julia S. Rihm*, Mareike M. Menz, Heidrun Schultz, Luca Bruder, Leonhard Schilbach, Sebastian M. Schmid, Jan Peters

*Corresponding author for this work
2 Citations (Scopus)


Sleep loss is associated with increased obesity risk, as demonstrated by correlations between sleep duration and change in body mass index or body fat percentage. Whereas previous studies linked this weight gain to disturbed endocrine parameters after sleep deprivation or restriction, neuroimaging studies revealed upregulated neural processing of food rewards after sleep loss in reward-processing areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum, and insula. To address this ongoing debate between hormonal versus hedonic factors underlying sleep-loss-associated weight gain, we rigorously tested the association between sleep deprivation and food cue processing using high-resolution fMRI and assessment of hormones. After taking blood samples from 32 lean, healthy, human male participants, they underwent fMRI while performing a neuroeconomic, value-based decision-making task with snack food and trinket rewards following a full night of habitual sleep and a night of sleep deprivation in a repeated-measures crossover design. We found that des-acyl ghrelin concentrations were increased after sleep deprivation compared with habitual sleep. Despite similar hunger ratings due to fasting in both conditions, participants were willing to spend more money on food items only after sleep deprivation. Furthermore, fMRI data paralleled this behavioral finding, revealing a food-reward-specific upregulation of hypothalamic valuation signals and amygdala– hypothalamic coupling after a single night of sleep deprivation. Behavioral and fMRI results were not significantly correlated with changes in acyl, des-acyl, or total ghrelin concentrations. Our results suggest that increased food valuation after sleep loss might be due to hedonic rather than hormonal mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)888-899
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 30.01.2019

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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