Changes in Brain Function and Structure Associated with High BMI in Preteens

A groundbreaking national study has recently revealed the concerning connection between obesity in preteens and their cognitive ability, brain structure, and neural connections. Published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found notable differences in the brains of overweight preteens when compared to their counterparts who had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI).

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Harnessing the Data Revolution initiative, assessed roughly 5,000 children aged 9–10 across 21 sites in the United States. While the research only explores the relationship between BMI and brain measures and is unable to assign causation to the findings, the association has raised concerns among experts.

Dr. Caterina Stamoulis, the study leader, and director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, pointed out the significance of monitoring brain health in adolescents with excess BMI. “It raises an alarm that it’s important to track adolescents’ brain health, especially when they have excess BMI,” she emphasized. Stamoulis also highlighted that early adolescence is a critical period for brain development, and frontal brain areas responsible for higher cognitive functions are particularly vulnerable to miswiring.

The study accrued subject data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a government-funded initiative that has gathered comprehensive behavioral and physiological data on various aspects of preteen health and development. Stamoulis and her team applied computational methods to analyze the data.

The findings showed that brain circuits responsible for higher-level cognitive functions, reward, emotion processing, and attention were less efficiently organized, less well connected, and less resilient in preteens with excess BMI. Further alterations were identified in the kids’ ability to problem-solve and utilize logic. These differences persisted even after accounting for factors that could potentially impact both BMI and brain health, such as sleep duration, screen time, physical activity, depression, and weight-related self-worth.

While the causative role of BMI in brain development is not established, Stamoulis highlighted that interventions targeting mental health screenings, sleep quality, physical activity, and screen time reduction could make a difference to preteens’ rapidly changing brains. Future research will analyze two-year follow-up data from subsequent ABCD datasets to understand the long-term impact of excess BMI on brain development. Stamoulis also intends to examine both nutritional and genetic data from the ABCD study to gain further insights into the relationship between BMI and brain health.

“It’s more difficult to intervene once the brain is done wiring. We want to see what neurodevelopmental trajectories these youth are on,” she concludes. This study serves as a wake-up call for parents and healthcare professionals to prioritize the importance of monitoring brain health in adolescents with excess BMI.

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