A brain reward gene influences food choices in the first years of life

November 26, 2013
A brain reward gene influences food choices in the first years of life
This is from the McGill University and The Douglas Mental Health Centre study: Maternal adversity, vulnerability and neurodevelopment. Credit: MAVAN, P. Sliveira

Research has suggested that a particular gene in the brain's reward system contributes to overeating and obesity in adults. This same variant has now been linked to childhood obesity and tasty food choices, particularly for girls, according to a new study by Dr. Patricia Silveira and Prof. Michael Meaney of McGill University and Dr. Robert Levitan of the University of Toronto.

Contrary to "blaming" for making poor food choices, Meaney and his team suggest that lies at the interface of three factors: , environmental stress and emotional well-being. These findings, published in the journal, Appetite, shed light on why some children may be predisposed to obesity, and could mark a critical step towards prevention and treatment.

"In broad terms, we are finding that obesity is a product of genetics, early development and circumstance", says Meaney, who is also Associate Director of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute Research Centre.

The work is part of the MAVAN (Maternal Adversity Vulnerability & Neurodevelopment) project, headed by Meaney and Hélène Gaudreau, Project Coordinator. Their team studied pregnant women, some of whom suffered from depression or lived in poverty, and followed their children from birth until the age of ten.

For the study, researchers tested 150 four-year old MAVAN children by administering a snack test meal. The children were faced with healthy and non-healthy . Mothers also completed a questionnaire to address their child's normal food consumption and preferences. "We found that a variation in a gene that regulates the activity of dopamine, a major neurotransmitter that regulates the individual's response to tasty food, predicted the amount of 'comfort' foods—highly palatable foods such as ice cream, candy or calorie-laden snacks—selected and eaten by the children", said Dr. Silveira. "This effect was especially important for girls who we found carried the genetic allele that decreases dopamine function."

"Most importantly, the amount of comfort food eaten during the snack test in the four- year-olds predicted the body weight of the girls at six years of age," says Meaney, "Our research indicates that genetics and emotional well-being combine to drive consumption of foods that promote obesity. The next step is to identify vulnerable , as there may be ways for prevention and counseling in early obesity stages".

Explore further: Addiction to unhealthy foods could help explain the global obesity epidemic

Related Stories

Child obesity tied to cardiovascular damage in childhood

August 15, 2013

(HealthDay)—Child obesity often is accompanied by cardiovascular abnormalities, and early detection and prevention programs are needed to avoid progressive damage at an early age, according to research published online ...

Study links 'food addiction' to obesity

September 30, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—University of Queensland researchers have found most Australians and Americans believe food is addictive and comparable to drug addiction.

Mom's weight gain during pregnancy tied to childhood obesity

October 1, 2013

A study of 41,133 mothers and their children in Arkansas has shown that high pregnancy weight gain increases the risk of obesity in those children through age 12. The findings, published Oct. 1 in PLoS Medicine, suggest pregnancy ...

Recommended for you

New target could eliminate lurking cancer stem cells

November 27, 2015

Scientists from Trinity College Dublin have identified a novel target that could help to identify 'cancer stem cells' while they are in their inactive state. The scientists could then jolt these cells into action so that ...

New class of RNA tumor suppressors identified

November 23, 2015

A pair of RNA molecules originally thought to be no more than cellular housekeepers are deleted in over a quarter of common human cancers, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Breast cancer ...

Batten disease may benefit from gene therapy

November 11, 2015

In a study of dogs, scientists showed that a new way to deliver replacement genes may be effective at slowing the development of childhood Batten disease, a rare and fatal neurological disorder. The key may be to inject viruses ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.