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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Adolescent Brain Differences Linked to Increased Waist Circumference

Group of smiling children

Differences in the microstructure of the nucleus accumbens, a region in the brain, predict increases in indicators of obesity in children, according to a study.

Differences in the microstructure of the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a region in the brain that plays an important role in processing food and other reward stimuli, predict increases in indicators of obesity in children, according to a study funded by NIDA and nine other institutes. The paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. The ABCD Study will follow nearly 12,000 children through early adulthood to assess factors that influence individual brain development and other health outcomes.

Findings from this study provide the first evidence of microstructural brain differences that are linked to waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) in children. These microstructural differences in cell density could be indicative of inflammatory processes triggered by a diet rich in high-fat foods. 

“We know that childhood obesity is a key predictor of adult obesity and other poor health outcomes later in life,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA. “These results extend previous animal studies to reveal what may prove to be a vicious cycle in which diet-related inflammation in brain striatal regions promotes further unhealthy eating behaviors and weight gain.”

Evidence from past human imaging studies has demonstrated the relationship between the NAcc and unhealthy eating behavior in adults. In this study, the researchers leveraged new diffusion MRI imaging techniques to examine the cellular structure of areas that comprise the striatal reward pathway in the brain to investigate disproportionate weight gain in youth.

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