Childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s, and is associated with a range of serious complications including diabetes, metabolic problems, sleep disorders, and increased risk of depression. But more recently a team of researchers in Brazil showed that obesity in children may even cause brain damage.
The researchers used new imaging technology to study the brains of 120 adolescents aged 12 to 16 — about half with obesity and half with more typical BMIs. Among the adolescents with obesity, there was more damage found in the brain’s white matter in two important areas: the corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres; and the middle orbitofrontal gyrus, which is associated with emotional control and the reward circuit.
In other words, “Brain changes found in obese adolescents related to important regions responsible for control of appetite, emotions and cognitive functions,” study co-author, biomedical scientist, and University of São Paulo Ph.D. student Pamela Bertolazzi said in a release. More research is needed to understand all of the causes and effects of the brain changes, but the damaged white matter was correlated with inflammation in the nervous system caused by obesity, as well as higher levels of the hormones insulin and leptin.
The study results help deepen our understanding of the seriousness of childhood obesity so that more can be done to mitigate the damaging effects. And, Bertolazzi added, “In the future, we would like to repeat brain MRI in these adolescents after multi-professional treatment for weight loss to assess if the brain changes are reversible or not.”
For parents who want to prevent obesity in their kids, there are many factors at play, including genetics and neighborhood design and safety. But there are plenty of other risk factors that families have more control over. In addition to creating healthy eating routines as a family and reducing your child’s sugar intake, the Mayo Clinic recommends making sure your child is getting enough sleep and limiting your child’s daily screen time to allow for more physical activity.
Keep in mind that you cannot always tell by how a child looks whether they are considered medically obese or not, since children naturally have different body frames and also carry different amounts of fat at different stages of development. Obesity is generally defined as having a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for the child’s age and sex. Your pediatrician can help you determine if your child is at risk for obesity.