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Obese children’s brains tend to crave more sugar, study

Posted:  Friday, December 19, 2014

Refined sugar is known to be one of the culprits for obesity and behaviour modification is usually used to curb sugar intake in obese individuals. However, in what could make weight loss difficult, a new study has found that obese children’s brains react differently when tasting sugar, providing them with a sense of food reward.

The study found that this elevated sense of food reward could mean that the circuitries in the children’s brains may predispose them to crave sugar for a lifetime to derive the feel good factor. These interesting findings were published in the International Journal of Obesity.

For the study, the team of researchers scanned the brains of 23 children aged 8 to 12 years while they tasted one-fifth of a teaspoon of water mixed with sucrose. They were told to swirl the sweetened water in the mouth with closed eyes, focussing on its taste. Body mass index analysis revealed that 10 children were obese and 13 had normal weight.

All the children had been pre-screened for the absence of confounding factors such as psychiatric disorders [anxiety, ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)] and were right handed. They all liked the taste of sucrose.

The brain images showed that obese children had heightened activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, the regions of the brain involved in perception, emotion, awareness, taste, motivation and reward. However, the obese children did not show any neuronal activity in a third area of the brain – the striatum – which is also a part of the response-reward circuitry. Other studies have associated heightened activity of the striatum with obesity in adults however the striatum does not develop fully till adolescence.

The current study helps identify other areas of the brain which influence the food reward circuitry in pre-adolescents. "The study is a wake-up call that prevention has to start very early because some children may be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards or they may be able to learn a relationship between food and feeling better faster than other children," said the lead researcher Kerri Boutelle.

Numerous studies have indicated that childhood obesity may increase the chances of obesity later in life. Hence, it is important that healthy eating and other prevention strategies be initiated early on.

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