Study finds link between child's obesity and cognitive function

April 1, 2014
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

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

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.