Marie Falkenstein



This project is led by Marie Falkenstein under the supervision of Jean-Yves Rotgé and Hilke Plassmann. It is funded by the initiative éco de la santé.  
Why do we sometimes choose a piece of chocolate cake over an apple? Eating decisions are unique because they are characterized by the following features: (1) they are among the most frequent type of decisions that we make every day; (2) they are necessary for survival; (3) they are shaped by culture and other sociological factors; and (4) they have consequences for our health and well-being. Thus, the brain must integrate various metabolic and psychological factors during dietary decision making and its regulation. Dietary decisions are extremely complex, yet, they are crucial to study. Our ability to address the obesity epidemic and eating disorders, which are pressing economic and societal issues, depends on our understanding of dietary decisions. Therefore, many different disciplines study dietary decision making. Nonetheless, our choices of what and how much to eat remain poorly understood, and little is known about the factors that determine why some people can keep their weight in a normal range and others cannot. 

Our projects aims to improve our understanding of dietary decision making through an interdisciplinary approach, bridging the gap between health, behavioral economics and neuroscience. In different sub-projects the role of white matter connectivity on self-control and ability to make healthier choices is going to be investigated with the goal of understanding structure-to-function mapping for dietary sealf-control. 
In a first project, a dataset combining white-matter connectivity measures (Diffusion Weighted Imaging (DWI)), grey matter density (i.e. voxel-based morphometry (VBM)) and functional magnetic resonance imaging data is used. Participants completed a dietary decision-making task that allowed capturing people’s ability to exercise self-control. The goal of this study is to investigate whether (1) white matter tract connectivity between the ACC, and the brain’s valuation and control system can be used as a marker to predict self-control and if so (2) whether this connectivity mediates the functional activation of those brain systems (i.e., function-to-structure mediation using the approach of Leong et al. 2015). The outcome of this first project will help our understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying individual differences in dietary self-control abilities. This outcome is important from a health economics perspective as it might help to design more targeted and thus more efficient interventions.

Furthermore, in a second project focusing on the ongoing health crisis caused by Covid-19, the role of exogenous stress on self-control and associated decision-making abilities in food as well as monetary domains will be assessed. Given that the cognitive and social dimension of the pandemic remain widely unknown, it is of importance to gain insight on the effects of a global health crisis on social and behavioral domains to approach them accordingly. 
In future projects, the role of structural connectivity during decision-making  and its control is going to be expanded to a clinical population. Thus, contributing to an understanding of (structural) brain markers underlying psychopathologies and potentially improving brain-based diagnoses and risk assessments.