Brain Functional Connectivity in Childhood Obesity
Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity in the US has nearly doubled, while obesity has tripled among adolescents. Given critical differences in neural function between adults and children, we studied children to better understand the developing neurobiology of obesity. We hypothesized that unhealthy eating habits and adiposity are associated with disrupted neural functional connectivity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We quantified functional connectivity between brain regions associated with impulsivity, response inhibition, and reward, in children ages 8-13 years old. Functional connectivity was measured using seed-based resting state and psychophysiological interaction (PPI) methods. We assessed the relationship of neural functional connectivity with adiposity, measured by BMI z-score, and eating behaviors, measured by the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (CEBQ) and the Dutch Eating Behaviour Questionnaire for Children (DEBQ-C). Our results suggest that the developing brain is primed toward food approach and away from food avoidance behavior with increasing adiposity. An imbalance in neural functional connectivity that is associated with unhealthy eating develops during childhood, as early as 8-13 years of age. Our results suggest that ineffective response inhibition-associated neural functional connectivity is characteristic of obesity in children. Furthermore, response inhibition-associated functional connectivity, more so than drive-associated functional connectivity, may be a key functional difference between children who are obese compared to children who are healthy weight. We conclude that, in addition to changing eating habits and physical activity, strategies that overcome altered neural functional connectivity which influence unhealthy eating are needed to maintain a healthy weight. Strengthening response inhibition-associated functional connectivity may contribute to novel, efficacious obesity treatment.