University of California study finds that brains of obese children react differently when exposed to sugar.

sugar2A new study published in the International Journal of Obesity, reveals that obese youth may react differently to certain food items such as sugar. The reaction is centered around the food reward area of the brain and could mean that some children have brain circuitries that predispose them to crave more sugar throughout life. Currently about one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese.

“The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar,” said first author Kerri Boutelle, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and founder of the university’s Center for Health Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR).

“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,” she said.

The research participants consisted of scanning the brains of 23 children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, while they tasted one-fifth of a teaspoon of water mixed with sucrose (table sugar). Ten of the children were obese and 13 had healthy weights, as classified by their body mass indices. All had been pre-screened for factors that could confound the results. For example, they were all right-handed and none suffered from psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety or ADHD. They also all liked the taste of sucrose.

The brain scans revealed that obese children had heightened activity in certain brain regions, the insular cortex and amygdala, regions of the brain involved in perception, emotion, awareness, taste, motivation and reward.

“Any obesity expert will tell you that losing weight is hard and that the battle has to be won on the prevention side,” said Boutelle, who is also a clinical psychologist. “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.”


K Boutelle, C E Wierenga, A Bischoff-Grethe, A J Melrose, E Grenesko-Stevens, M P Paulus, W H Kaye. Increased brain response to appetitive tastes in the insula and amygdala in obese compared to healthy weight children when sated. International Journal of Obesity, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2014.206

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