Childhood Obesity Linked to Differences in Brain Regions
Thu, October 21, 2021

Childhood Obesity Linked to Differences in Brain Regions

According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. / Photo by: Dmitriy Protsenko via 123rf


The cases of childhood obesity have gone up in recent years and have become a problem for parents and even in schools. In the United States, public schools are required to have healthier food options for their students in order for them to have a balanced meal and healthier diets. Moreover, schools both public and private are required to have physical education classes to promote a more active lifestyle among their students. All of these efforts are set to curb childhood obesity. However, some reports say childhood obesity might actually be more than just lifestyle choices. 

A Serious Public Health Challenge

According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, and it is a growing problem around the world affecting many children particularly in the urban areas. In 2016, the number of overweight children has risen to more than 41 million and half of them live in Asia. Specialists say that overweight and obese children are most likely to stay obese as they grow older, and they are also more likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age, hence, their condition must be managed in order to prevent these diseases from developing later on. 

Other than having diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, obese children can also develop high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure from a very young age that they can carry until adulthood. Also, obese children can contract a nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is a disorder that deposits excess fat into the liver and it can lead to liver scarring and damage. 

Causes of Childhood Obesity

There are different causes of childhood obesity according to the Mayo Clinic, a top organization for medical research. Factors such as diet, lack of exercise, family genetics, psychological, and socioeconomic all play a role in causing childhood obesity. Regularly ingesting high-calorie and high-sugar foods such as fast food, baked goods, and sodas can cause a child to become overweight.

Children who do not get enough playtime or exercise are also more likely to gain weight because they do not burn as many calories compared to other more active children. Too much time spent in sedentary activities such as playing video games or watching television can also contribute to the lack of exercise. Also, genetics can also be a contributing factor to childhood obesity—if a child comes from a family of overweight people, they are more likely to gain weight more than their average peers. 

Parental styles and family stress can also increase the child’s risk of obesity; some children tend to eat more to cope with stress and problems arising in the home. Lastly, socioeconomic factors can also cause childhood obesity. For instance, some families have limited resources and they do not have access to healthy options, hence, they mostly turn to fast food or the cheaper options, which are often not the best for their children.


Spending too much time in sedentary activities such as playing video games or watching television can cause a child to become overweight. / Photo by: belchonock via 123rf


The Structural Difference in Brain Regions

As reported on Medical Press, a website for neuroscientific publications, obesity in children is associated with differences in structures of some regions in the brain that are linked to cognitive control, according to the researchers from the University of Cambridge, whose study was recently published in the Cerebral Cortex journal. 

Previous studies have shown that overweight children score lower in cognitive tests that measure the child’s executive function, which refers to the child’s self-control, decision-making skills, working memory, and response to rewards. The researchers from the University of Cambridge and Yale University analyzed data from 2,700 children between the ages of 9 and 11, who were recruited by the National Institutes of Health Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. 

The researchers specifically looked at the thickness of the cortex and the outer layer of the brain, which is called grey matter, and compared it to the child’s body mass index (BMI). They also cross-referenced these results with the results from the executive function tests. They found out that there is a correlation between the increased BMI and the reduction in the average thickness of the cortex in the brain. More importantly, the researchers learned that increased BMI is associated with poorer performance in executive function tests. 

Dr. Lisa Ronan, the first author of the study and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said that they saw very clear differences in the brain structures of children with higher BMIs—those who are overweight and obese—compared to the children who had a healthy weight. It is important to note, however, that these are just initial results, and the team will follow these children as they get older and to see whether or not their brain structure will change if they lose the excess weight. 

The correlation that the team found suggested that there are very real structural brain and cognitive differences between obese children and children who have normal weight. These findings contribute to the growing understanding of the causes and consequences of childhood obesity, as professor Paul Fletcher from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry concluded.