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Study finds 'concerning' links between BMI and children's brain health

by Children's Hospital Boston

Brain

Pre-teen children with overweight or obesity show notable differences in cognitive performance, brain structures, and brain circuitry when compared to those with normal body-mass index (BMI), new research shows.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

Rates of overweight and obesity in children worldwide are now at record levels - and these new data show 'concerning' links between excess weight in US children aged 9-10 years and:
  • impaired cognitive performance (poorer performance on measures of 'fluid reasoning' ability)
  • differences in both the structure and functional connectivity and efficiency of many brain regions and networks, assessed via detailed brain imaging
Rising obesity rates are well known known to have increased children's risks for physical health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease - which used to occur only in adults. 

But the potential implications of obesity for children's brain health and development have received remarkably little attention to date - despite the fact that mental health disorders in children and adolescents have risen almost in parallel with obesity since the 1980s.

While correlational data like these can't address questions of causality, the researchers emphasise that adolescence is a critical period for brain development and plasticity - making any interventions after this 'rewiring' period less likely to be effective.

They also plan to follow up this cohort of almost 5000 children - and to investigate links with both nutritional and genetic data in future studies. 


For more details of this research, see:


And the related news article:


And for more articles on this topic, please see the following lists, which are regularly updated:

26/04/2023 - Medical Xpress

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Obesity is a growing epidemic in children and adults. A large national study published in the
International Journal of Obesity now finds that preteens carrying excess weight have notable differences in cognitive performance, brain structures, and brain circuitry when compared to preteens with normal body-mass index (BMI).

The study involved nearly 5,000 9- to 10-year-olds at 21 sites across the United States. While it only examines the relationship between BMI and the brain and cannot establish causation, there is a significant association between BMI and brain measures in the study.

Study leader Caterina Stamoulis, Ph.D., a researcher in Adolescent Medicine and director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston Children's Hospital, finds the association concerning.

"It raises an alarm that it's important to track adolescents' brain health, especially when they have excess BMI," she says. "Early adolescence is a time when the brain is very actively developing, and when frontal areas of the brain—those involved in higher cognitive functions—change enormously and are vulnerable to miswiring."

Inefficiently organized brain networks

The study drew its subjects from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which has collected detailed clinical, physiological, environmental, and lifestyle information, together with neuroimaging and neurocognitive data. Stamoulis and colleagues in her lab use advanced computational methods to analyze the large data sets.

In preteens with excess BMI, brain circuits supporting higher-level cognitive functions, reward, emotional processing, and attention were found to be organized less efficiently and to be less well-connected and less resilient than in preteens with normal BMI.

Excess BMI was correlated with difference in multiple brain structures, as well as a lower ability to think logically and solve problems in new settings. The differences were consistent even after adjusting for factors—like sleep duration, screen time, physical activity, depression, and self-worth—related to weight that may affect both BMI and brain health.

Whether BMI plays a direct causative role or not in brain development, Stamoulis emphasizes that preteens' brains are still changing, and that interventions can make a difference—whether they be mental health screenings, improving sleep quantity and quality, increasing physical activity, or reducing screen time.

A stake in the ground

Stamoulis now plans to analyze two-year follow-up data from additional waves of the ABCD datasets to see what happens to the brains of kids with excess BMI over time. "Once the brain is done wiring, it's more difficult to intervene," she says. "We want to see what neurodevelopmental trajectories these youth are on."

She also hopes to analyze genetic and nutritional data, which the ABCD study plans to release in the future.