Childhood Obesity Could Hurt Brainpower, Shows Study


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Even with childhood obesity rates seen falling in recent years in the U.S., the medical profession is still considering the phenomenon an epidemic. With the physical health concerns associated with childhood obesity well-documented, researchers are now discovering the mental concerns the condition can bring.

A new study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex is showing that childhood obesity could be linked to certain decreased cognitive functions. Specifically, the research shows that obese children are slower at what is called "action monitoring." That is, obese children may be slow to catch their mistakes and correct them.

The study's authors measured both the behavioral and brain activity of pre-adolescent children who participated in matching task game. The children were presented with fish facing in different directions and asked to press buttons corresponding to the direction target fish were facing.

"We found that obese children were considerably slower to respond to stimuli when they were involved in this activity," said Charles Hillman, lead author of the study and a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois. "The healthy-weight kids were more accurate following an error than the obese children were, and when the task required greater amounts of executive control, the difference was even greater,"

These findings could be significant for students struggling with their education. Action monitoring can be particularly important for school subjects such as math and reading. Hillman uses the example of carrying over digits when adding as a simple task that involves action monitoring.

The study also helps to shed light on previous studies that have shown a link between a healthy weight and academic achievement. Hillman and his colleagues were able to see first-hand the electrical patterns that appear in the brain when errors are encountered.

There are certainly physiological differences in the brain activity of obese and healthy-weight children," said Naiman Khan, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois. "It's exciting to be able to use functional brain imaging to see the way children's weight affects the aspects of cognition that influence and underlie achievement."

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