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According to recent research, childhood obesity increases the likelihood of developing diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Moreover, excessive weight during youth may also negatively impact brain health. Studies conducted by the Radiological Society of North America reveal that children with a higher body mass index tend to exhibit poorer cognitive functioning, highlighting an under-discussed concern regarding childhood obesity.

Obesity and high BMI alters brain structure

Researcher Simone Kaltenhauser from Yale School of Medicine notes the link between adult obesity and compromised brain health. However, studies on children have often been limited to small sample sizes or narrow aspects of brain health.

In a study utilizing MRI data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) project, Kaltenhauser and colleagues investigated brain health in a diverse sample of 11,878 children aged nine to ten from 21 centers across the US. Excluding those with specific conditions, the team analyzed data from over 5,100 children. They found that 21% and 17.6% of participants were overweight or obese based on BMI z-scores. Brain health was assessed using structural MRI, resting-state fMRI, and diffusion tensor imaging to examine white matter integrity.

The study adjusted for various factors such as age, sex, right or left handedness, race-ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Results showed that children with higher weight and BMI z-scores had altered brain structure, including impaired white matter integrity. Damage was observed in the corpus callosum, affecting communication between brain hemispheres, and the cortex was thinner, potentially impacting cognitive function.

Children with higher BMI have reduced cortical thickens

Kaltenhauser highlights that changes in cortical thickness were evident in childhood. The decrease in cortical thickness among children with higher weight and BMI z-scores was anticipated, aligning with previous findings in smaller ABCD study subsets.

Dr. Sam Payabvash, a senior author and neuroradiologist, points out that the results of this study shed light on similar findings in previous research that associate a high BMI in children with diminished cognitive abilities and academic performance. Dr. Payabvash recommends continued monitoring of these children over a period of six to ten years to track the evolution of brain changes as they mature.