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Childhood Obesity Affects Brain Development

Brain development issues may occur in children who are overweight, obese, or at risk for metabolic syndrome….

Metabolic syndrome is a combination of risk factors or symptoms that are linked to conditions such as stroke, diabetes and heart disease, and that often include central obesity (extra weight in upper and central part of the body), and insulin resistance. Childhood obesity has been linked to onset of metabolic syndrome.

According to researcher Antonio Convit, M.D. professor of psychiatry and medicine at NYU School of Medicine, children with metabolic syndrome scored 10 percent lower on mental tasks associated with learning when compared to other children not at risk or suffering from metabolic syndrome.

Specific risk factors of metabolic syndrome for children include: being insulin resistant, signs of pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, low levels of "good" cholesterol, childhood obesity or belly fat, and high levels of triglycerides.

Convit stated that, "We are seeing brain changes in kids with metabolic syndrome and we don’t know if this is reversible." He points out there has not been enough research into what happens to the brain before diabetes onset in children.

For the research, more than 100 teenagers were assessed. Forty-nine of those children had metabolic syndrome risk factors, compared to 62 participants without those risks. The research demonstrated the more risk factors a child had, the more drastic the changes seen in the brain.

Obese or overweight teenagers with metabolic syndrome showed physical changes to their brains as well as a lack of proficiency in the areas of math and reading.

Convit added that, "Kids who are struggling with their weight and moving toward having MetS (metabolic syndrome) may have lower grades, which could ultimately lead to lower professional achievement in the long run."

Convit feels testing for insulin resistance among at-risk children and better physical education programs in schools may be part of the answer. "We should invest more in physical education so kids are fitter and less likely to have insulin resistance, which is the main driver of these brain changes," he said.

Michele Mietus-Snyder, MD, says the new findings should serve as a wake-up call.

"Every cell in every organ system requires energy to live and insulin is the gatekeeper," she says. "Insulin resistance has reached beyond the traditional organ systems to the brain."

"We need to be very vigilant when children start to gain belly fat because we don’t want children to fall behind the metabolic eight ball." If that occurs, it becomes a catch-22. "How can you expect someone to make healthy choices when they are [mentally] impaired?"

Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, is the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, D.C. "Metabolic syndrome was unheard of in kids until recently," he says. "It is striking that a significant number of kids have metabolic syndrome, but the fact that we can show further consequences in the brain is even more striking."

Pediatrics Sept. 2012