New research suggests that the brains of obese children have a heightened response to sugar, a reaction that differs significantly from those of normal weight children.
Obesity has become a major health problem not only in the United States but also worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that more than one-third of the overall American population is obese. This includes the more than 33 percent of children and adolescents who were deemed overweight or obese in 2012.
A new study by researchers at the University of California (UC), San Diego School of Medicine found that the brains of obese children reacted differently to sugar compared to the brains of non-obese children.
The research does not display a relationship between overeating and sugar hypersensitivity. However, it supports the notion that obese young Americans probably have an increased psychological reward response to food.
The increased level of the so-called "food reward" may involve getting inspired by food and growing a positive feeling from it. Scientists point out that this food reward behavior may mean that some kids have different brain structures, which makes them attracted to food with high sugar levels throughout their life.
"The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar," says Kerri Boutelle, founder of UC's Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR), who is also author of the study.
Boutelle claims that they can detect the brain differences between children as young as eight years old.
The study involved 23 children between eight and 12 years old. The researchers scanned the brains of the children while they drank small amounts of water that was mixed with table sugar. The participants were asked to swirl the water mixed with sugar in their mouth with their eyes closed.
The participants included 10 obese children, and the rest were healthy. The brain scanning tests showed that obese participants showed heightened motion in the insular cortex and amygdala, which are the brain regions involved in emotion, perception, taste, awareness, reward and motivation.
The researchers also pointed out that obese participants did not display any increased neuronal activity in the striatum, the part of the brain responsible for reward response. This part of the brain was linked with obesity in adults in other studies. However, researchers also indicate that the striatum does not fully develop until adolescence.
Previous studies indicate that obese children have an 80 to 90 percent chance of becoming obese adults.