Study finds link between child's obesity and cognitive function

April 1, 2014, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This is an image of a weight scale. Credit: CDC/Debora Cartagena

A new University of Illinois study finds that obese children are slower than healthy-weight children to recognize when they have made an error and correct it. The research is the first to show that weight status not only affects how quickly children react to stimuli but also impacts the level of activity that occurs in the cerebral cortex during action monitoring.

"I like to explain action monitoring this way: when you're typing, you don't have to be looking at your keyboard or your screen to realize that you've made a keystroke error. That's because action monitoring is occurring in your brain's prefrontal cortex," said Charles Hillman, a U of I professor of kinesiology and faculty member in the U of I's Division of Nutritional Sciences.

As an executive control task that requires organizing, planning, and inhibiting, action monitoring requires people to be computational and conscious at all times as they process their behavior. Because these higher-order cognitive processes are needed for success in mathematics and reading, they are linked with success in school and positive life outcomes, he said.

"Imagine a child in a math class constantly checking to make sure she's carrying the digit over when she's adding. That's an example," he added.

In the study, the scientists measured the behavioral and neuroelectric responses of 74 preadolescent , half of them obese, half at a healthy weight. Children were fitted with caps that recorded electroencephalographic activity and asked to participate in a task that presented left- or right-facing fish, predictably facing in either the same or the opposite direction. Children were asked to press a button based on the direction of the middle (that is, target) fish. The flanking fish either pointed in the same direction (facilitating) or in the opposite direction (hindering) their ability to respond successfully.

"We found that obese children were considerably slower to respond to stimuli when they were involved in this activity," Hillman said.

The researchers also found that healthy-weight children were better at evaluating their need to change their behavior in order to avoid future errors.

"The healthy-weight kids were more accurate following an error than the were, and when the task required greater amounts of executive control, the difference was even greater," he reported.

A second evaluation measured electrical activity in the brain "that occurs at the intersection of thought and action," Hillman said. "We can measure what we call error-related negativity (ERN) in the electrical pattern that the brain generates following errors. When children made an error, we could see a larger negative response. And we found that healthy-weight children are better able to upregulate the neuroelectric processes that underlie error evaluation."

Scientists in the Hillman lab and elsewhere have seen a connection between healthy weight and academic achievement, "but a study like this helps us understand what's happening. There are certainly physiological differences in the brain activity of obese and children. It's exciting to be able to use to see the way children's weight affects the aspects of cognition that influence and underlie achievement," said postdoctoral researcher and co-author Naiman Khan.

Explore further: Obese children more vulnerable to food advertising

More information: "The Negative Association of Childhood Obesity to Cognitive Control of Action Monitoring" is available pre-publication online in Cerebral Cortex at cercor.oxfordjournals.org/cont … /cercor.bhs349.short

Related Stories

Obese children more vulnerable to food advertising

November 30, 2012
Rates of childhood obesity have tripled in the past 30 years, and food marketing has been implicated as one factor contributing to this trend. Every year, companies spend more than $10 billion in the US marketing their food ...

Increased adiposity and reduced physical activity in children: Cause or effect?

March 18, 2014
Increased adiposity is likely to cause reduced physical activity in children, according to research published in this week's PLOS Medicine. The results of the study, conducted by Rebecca Richmond and colleagues from the MRC ...

Children living close to fast food outlets more likely to be overweight

February 13, 2014
Children living in areas surrounded by fast food outlets are more likely to be overweight or obese according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR).

Many parents of obese children underestimate their weight

February 3, 2014
(HealthDay)—Half the parents of overweight or obese children don't think their kids have a weight problem, a new analysis reveals.

Kids teased in PE class exercise less a year later

January 16, 2014
A new study found that children who were bullied during P.E. class or other physical activities were less likely to participate in physical activity one year later.

Obesity associated with lower academic attainment in teenage girls, says new study

March 11, 2014
Obesity in adolescent girls is associated with lower academic attainment levels throughout their teenage years, a new study has shown.

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

0 comments

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.