A study from Lisa Ronan (Psychiatry) and Paul Fletcher (Department of Psychiatry and IMS-MRL) has uncovered distinct differences in brain structure in obese children compared to those of healthy weight.
The study, published in Cerebral Cortex, aimed to determine whether differences in brain structure mediate the relationship between executive function and childhood obesity. Researchers analysed cortical thickness for 2700 children between the ages of 9 and 11 years, recruited as part of the NIH Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, and related their findings to measures of executive function and body mass index (BMI).
Increased BMI was associated with significantly reduced mean cortical thickness, as well as specific bilateral reduced cortical thickness in prefrontal cortical regions. This relationship remained after accounting for age, sex, race, parental education, household income, birth-weight, and in-scanner motion. Increased BMI was also associated with lower executive function.
The scientists who led the study stress that it is not possible to say whether obesity causes these brain changes or whether the children are obese because their brain structures are different. They highlight that follow-up studies will be critical to establishing causal pathways between BMI, brain structure, and executive function, as well as determining if longitudinal changes in BMI have a measurable impact on these traits.
The links that we observed suggest that there are very real structural brain and cognitive differences in children who are obese
– Paul Fletcher