Overweight child's brain reacts differently to food, study finds

SEATTLE  - Fascinating is one way to describe the science going on at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Christian Roth and his team are studying the relationship between brain signals and food consumption in children.

“We want to test the brain responses to food,” he said.

Dr. Roth is studying the part of the brain associated with things like food intake, impulsivity, and addiction.

“The hormonal pattern is completely different in overweight children versus lean children,” Dr. Roth said. And that difference can be seen in recent MRI scans showing a lean child and an overweight one.

Dr. Roth shows the children the same pictures of different types of food including a chocolate chip cookie and pizza. Then the brains are scanned and the MRI show a big red area in the front of the brain that indicates hunger. The children will then eat a balanced meal and shown the pictures of the foods again. The second set of MRIs shows a big difference between the lean child and overweight one.

The red area of the brain diminishes for a lean child which means the brain tells them they are full. Compared to the overweight child where the red part stays the same or even intensifies after they are shown pictures of food.

“They are not feeling full they still want to eat,” Dr. Roth said.

So the question is how does an overweight child's brain get this way?

“If you eat a lot of unhealthy foods your responses for food intake is different than if you eat healthy foods,” Dr. Roth explains.

He says it’s rarely genetics, it's more of a biological and environmental reaction.

Hunger and fullness trends can start early even linked to whether or not a child was breastfed. Dr. Roth is not saying parents should not give your babies formula but he says there are different types that are better than others and he recommends speaking to your pediatrician about the matter.

The bigger issue that affects the brain is the years of unhealthy eating that could trigger it to light up the wrong way.

“What we hope to see is that we can change the patterns that are disturbed in overweight children,” Dr. Roth said.

That is the main goal behind his 6-monthh study, to understand what they need to do to help children alter their brain signals.

Dr. Roth is asking for volunteers for his new trials. Study coordinator Maya Rowland says they need more families with overweight children. Children need to be 9 to 11 years old.

“Six months once a week in the evening, 90 mins to two-hour sessions that they would come see us,” Rowland said.

It’s a commitment that could be worth it, many families leave the trial with healthy changes that could impact their children’s life long term.

If you want more information about the study you can email BASICStudy@seattlechildrens.org or call 1855 682 0788.