Despite the health risks, about 1.1 billion people smoke tobacco worldwide, and cigarette manufacturers spend more than $8 billion annually on product promotion. But what if advertising aimed at rooting out smoking was as effective as ads that encourage it?

For Emily Yudofsky, the idea of using powerful marketing techniques to influence behavior for the better is more than just a dream. A Yale College junior majoring in psychology, Yudofsky established her own “neuromarketing” company, Applied Resonance Research, in 2007, with the goal of using imaging technologies to enhance the effectiveness of public-service advertising.

With funding from the Yale Interdisciplinary Research Consortium on Stress, Self-Control and Addiction (IRCSSA), Yudovsky is now using the medical school’s functional MRI (fMRI) facility to study how product branding influences the brain.

While in high school in Houston, Yudofsky attended neuroimaging conferences. Having developed a strong interest in the field, she secured a summer position with a team of neuroscientists and behavioral scientists at Baylor College of Medicine’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory. A study taking place in the lab at that time, the results of which were published in the journal Neuron in 2004, reported that subjects’ preference for a popular soft drink increased when drunk from cups bearing the drink’s logo, and that brain regions involved in decision-making and memory were more stimulated when sips of the drink in an fMRI scanner were accompanied by a visual presentation of the drink’s brand.

The study “showed that branding alone can change the way people make decisions,” Yudofsky says. This work inspired her to ponder the possibility of studying neural responses to marketing with an eye toward lessening the impact of public health problems such as smoking and obesity.

As a Yale freshman, Yudofsky was invited by the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) to be one of 12 participants in the YEI’s inaugural summer fellowship program.

Yudofksy found willing mentors at the medical school in Hilary Blumberg, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology, and Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and IRCSSA director. Sinha helped Yudofsky to secure grant money to conduct fMRI research at the medical school’s Anlyan Center for Medical Research and Education with the guidance of Marvin M. Chun, Ph.D., professor of psychology and Yudofsky’s advisor. In particular, she is studying brain activity associated with public-service ads aimed at preventing obesity.

While brain function is measured in the fMRI scanner, “subjects are asked to make a decision between two different objects or food items, and they’re told to think about the consequences of their choices,” Yudofsky explains. “Then they’re shown obesity-prevention ads and another advertisement, and again asked to make decisions between two different items—some of the choices are healthful and some are unhealthful.”

By applying imaging technologies to similar psychological tasks, Yudofsky, the subject of a recent New York Times profile, hopes “to assess validly in the brain the effectiveness of public service advertisements and other modes of communication on influencing healthful choices, decisions, and behaviors.” Her ultimate goal, she says, is “to improve public health and diminish human suffering.”