Gourmand Syndrome

First identified by neuroscientists in the 1990s, the disorder is marked by “a preoccupation with food and a preference for fine eating”

Irresistible pesto
Irresistible pesto Image courtesy of Flickr user alajulia

Outside magazine isn’t usually my source for food knowledge, but I recently read an intriguing tidbit there. The article was about a young professional snowboarder, Kevin Pearce, who sustained brain damage from a near-fatal accident in the halfpipe in December 2009. He’s lucky to be alive and sentient, but the trauma has taken its toll: He had to relearn how to walk, may never snowboard again—and almost certainly will never compete—and has serious short-term memory deficits.

One side effect is less troubling, though more relevant to a food blog: Ever since awakening from his post-accident coma, Pearce has had frequent, intense cravings for basil pesto, a food he had no special feelings for before.

Although the article doesn’t go into more detail about this quirk of his brain injury, he’s not an isolated case. When a certain part of the right hemisphere of the brain is damaged by trauma, stroke or tumors, some patients develop “gourmand syndrome.” First identified by neuroscientists in the 1990s, the disorder is marked by “a preoccupation with food and a preference for fine eating.”

At this point you may be thinking what I’m thinking: I don’t remember hitting my head. Joking aside, the syndrome goes beyond the normal (or at least semi-normal) infatuation of people like those of us who write and read about food—although, in at least one case documented by Swiss researchers, the syndrome prompted a political reporter to switch to food writing.

There is also the potential for consequences more serious than career changes; sometimes the obsession is severe enough to lead to an eating disorder such as bulimia. Continuing research could shed light on addiction and compulsive behavior.

The thing that I find fascinating about all of this is that there is still so much we have yet to learn about the brain. How odd that there could be a specific part of the noggin affecting whether and how intensely we crave pesto. It makes me wonder if there is a connection between my 92-year-old grandmother’s dementia and possible strokes and the changes in her food preferences in the last few years: She’ll hardly eat anything except pickled herring anymore, and she eats it every day.

It also makes me wonder how much of what we consider our personalities—our likes and dislikes—is really dictated by biology. It will be interesting to see what else researchers learn about the brain in our lifetimes.

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