Preteens in peril: Childhood obesity linked to concerning changes in brain activity

BOSTON — Obesity is a worrisome epidemic that is continuously impacting more and more children and adolescents around the world. Now, a large national study has found that overweight preteens display concerning changes in cognitive performance, brain structure, and brain circuitry compared to those with a normal body mass index (BMI).

“It raises an alarm that it’s important to track adolescents’ brain health, especially when they have excess BMI,” says study leader Caterina Stamoulis, PhD, a researcher in Adolescent Medicine and director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“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,” Dr. Stamoulis continues in a media release.

The study gathered almost 5,000 nine and 10-year-olds from the government-funded Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which has detailed clinical, physiological, environmental, and lifestyle data as well as neuroimaging and neurocognitive information. In order to analyze these large data sets, Stamoulis and her team used advanced computational methods.

The researchers found that in preteens with a higher BMI, brain circuitry was weaker, more disorganized, and disconnected. This impacts cognitive functions, reward and emotional processing, and even attention skills. The researchers found the same correlation in brain structure differences as well as a decrease in the group’s ability to problem-solve and think logically, which are two important skills adolescents learn during this stage of their development. Even after adjusting for sleep duration, screen time, exercise, depression, and feelings of self-worth related to weight, the results remained consistent across the board.

Child eating fast food at home
(© Africa Studio –

While this study did not definitively link obesity to changes in the brain, Stamoulis states that the preteen brain is still forming and growing, and any intervention can make a difference in developmental outcomes. These interventions could come in the form of encouraging more mental health screenings, improving sleep quality, boosting physical activity, or cutting back on screen time.

Since the young mind is ever-changing, Stamoulis looks ahead to exploring data from ABCD participants over a two-year time frame in order to capture what happens to the brains of those who are overweight for a prolonged period of time.

“Once the brain is done wiring, it’s more difficult to intervene,” the researcher says. “We want to see what neurodevelopmental trajectories these youth are on.”

She also wants to analyze genetic and nutritional data, which the ABCD study is looking to release in the future. Having these additional data points will hopefully strengthen the correlation and urge parents and health officials to boost their actions to protect pediatric health.

The findings are published in the International Journal of Obesity.

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