Obese Children's Brains are Wired Differently When Exposed to Sugar

First Posted: Dec 12, 2014 11:04 AM EST

It turns out that obese children may have brains that are wired differently when they're exposed to sugar. Scientists have found that the brains of overweight children literally light up differently when tasting sugar.

In order to see how obese children respond to sugar, the scientists scanned the brains of 23 children, ranging in age from eight to 12, as they tasted one-fifth of a teaspoon of water mixed with table sugar. The children were directed to swirl the sugar-water mix in their mouth with their eyes closed, focusing on its taste. Of the children, 10 of them were obese and 13 had healthy weights.

So what did they find? It turns out that the obese children had heightened activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, which are regions of the brain involved in perception, emotion, awareness, taste, motivation and reward. Notably, the obese children did not show any heightened neuronal activity in a third area of the brain, called the striatum. This part of the brain is also part of the response-reward circuitry in whose activity has been associated with obesity in adults.

"The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar," said Kerri Boutelle, the first author of the new study, in a news release. "That we can detect these brain differences in children as young as eight years old is the most remarkable and clinically significant part of the study."

The findings are actually a wake-up call to parents. It turns out that prevention has to start early, because some children may be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards.

The findings are published in the International Journal of Obesity.

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