Does Childhood Obesity Affect Brain Development?

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Kids with metabolism problems may be at risk of brain impairment, a new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests.

Researchers at the NYU School of Medicine linked adolescents who experienced a few years of problems with metabolism to brain complications.

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"The kids with MetS [metabolic syndrome] took longer to do tasks, could not read as well and had poorer math scores," lead investigator Dr. Antonio Convit, professor of psychiatry and medicine, said in a press release. "These findings indicate that kids with MetS do not perform well on things that are very relevant to school performance."

Children are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome when they have at least three of five health issues: abdominal obesity, low HDL (good cholesterol), high triglycerides, high blood pressure and pre-diabetic insulin resistance. The syndrome, which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary artery disease, has risen along with the increase in childhood obesity.

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To determine how metabolic syndrome might affect brain development, the researchers compared 49 kids with the syndrome to 62 without the syndrome, balancing the groups according to age, socioeconomic status, gender and ethnicity.

Both groups underwent endocrine, MRI and neuropsychological evaluations. The group with metabolic syndrome scored lower on math and spelling tests. That group also had a harder time maintaining attention span and displaying mental flexibility.

The brains of those with metabolic syndrome showed structural differences as well: they had smaller hippocampal volumes, increased brain cerebrospinal fluid and reductions of microstructural integrity in major white matter tracts in the brain.

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"Parents need to understand that obesity has medical consequences, even in children, and some of those consequences may be impacting more than just the long term health of the cardiovascular system," Dr. Convit said.

Convit and colleagues had previously linked adults with long-term metabolic syndrome to neurocognitive impairments in adults, but hadn't known how quickly the syndrome might cause brain issues.

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