Obesity May Change the Teen Brain, MRI Study Shows
But this study does not get at that question.
“This doesn’t tell you anything about the direction of the relationship,” said Allan Geliebter, a senior scientist in psychiatry at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.
It’s also unclear, he noted, whether factors other than body fat — such as diet or lack of physical activity — could be involved.
Geliebter, who was not part of the study, called it “interesting” in part because it focused on teenagers. If brain differences can be seen that early, that’s important, he noted.
Future studies could look at whether such brain differences remain after obese teens lose weight, Geliebter said. That would suggest — though not prove — that obesity causes the brain structure changes, he explained.
In a study published earlier this year, Geliebter and his colleagues found hints that this could be the case. They focused on severely obese adults who were starting weight-loss treatment, through surgery or lifestyle changes only. Four months on, patients who were losing weight showed increases in the brain’s white and gray matter.
Pamela Bertolazzi, a doctoral student at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, is scheduled to present the latest findings Dec. 1 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago.
Research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For the study, her team used a specialized MRI technique to assess the brains of 59 obese and 61 normal-weight kids, aged 12 to 16. The investigators focused on a measure called fractional anisotropy, or FA: If it’s reduced, that suggests lesser integrity in the brain’s white matter, Bertolazzi explained.
Overall, the study found, obese teens had a lower FA in certain areas of white matter, compared to normal-weight kids. The affected areas control appetite and emotions.
Bertolazzi said her team hopes to do exactly what Geliebter described — repeating the MRI measurements in the same teens after the obese group goes through a weight-loss program.
Other studies, she noted, have shown that obese kids tend to have lower IQ scores than their thinner peers, though it’s not known whether that is due to any effects of obesity on the brain.
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SOURCES: Pamela Bertolazzi, Ph.D. student, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil; Harold Bays, M.D., medical director, Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Center, Kentucky, and fellow, Obesity Medicine Association, Denver; Allan Geliebter, Ph.D., senior scientist, psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and distinguished professor, psychology, Touro College, New York City; Dec. 1, 2019, presentation, Radiological Society of North America annual meeting, Chicago
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