Nav: Home

Review suggests a reciprocal relationship between obesity and self-control

February 26, 2019

In a review published February 26 in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers explore the age-old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum but this time looking at whether obesity reduces self-control or if reduced self-control leads to obesity. The authors argue that the short answer is both, and it is largely due to activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is not only affected by our dietary choices, but can also influence it.

"It's not just the case that obesity is causing these issues in the brain structure and function, but it is this reciprocal relationship--that differences in brain structure and function can cause obesity, that's really important," says first author Cassandra Lowe (@cassandra_lowe), a BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Fellow at the Western University. "Our review shows that if you have lower prefrontal activity, it can pre-dispose you to overeating, which in turn can lead to weight gain and obesity."

Obesity neuroscience has primarily focused on dysfunction in the brain's reward pathways, but recent studies have found that individual differences in the function and structure of the prefrontal cortex may be of equal importance. The extent by which that region of the brain is activated when making decisions has been shown to predict a person's susceptibility to desiring high-calorie foods. Someone with reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex may be more prone to eat more, especially when presented with food cues (e.g., media advertisements), which can cause more changes in the brain that would then cause overeating to occur in the future, and so on, in a loop.

"By reframing the issue of obesity around prefrontal activity, as opposed to reward region responsivity, we can explore treatments and preventative measures that may inhibit unwanted weight gain." says Lowe.

"Exercise has been shown to increase activity in our prefrontal cortex, which in turn lets us better ignore food cravings, going well beyond its traditional role as merely a means of getting rid of surplus calories," says Lowe. Additionally, research suggests that practicing mindfulness in our eating behavior is also an effective way to improve prefrontal cortex activity. "By focusing on the healthiness and long-term consequences of the food we are eating instead of just taste, we are able to make better dietary choices."

"Making good eating habits during our formative childhood and adolescent years can help set healthy eating up for life and ensure the prefrontal cortex functions correctly," says Amy Reichelt (@TheAmyR), a BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Fellow at the at Western University who co-authored the review along with Peter Hall of Waterloo University in Canada. "At this age, an adolescent's prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which in part explains the impulsive and hot-headed decision making of our youth--the control system isn't fully engaged yet. Related to this aptitude for poor decision making are poor eating habits, with adolescents eating more unnecessary calories from junk foods than any other age group, a habit that can last into adulthood."

Improving prefrontal cortex activity by making behavior-based therapies, like exercise and mindfulness, prescribed as the norm is an attractive approach to combating obesity, the authors write. However, how to implement these therapies will require further research, as there is currently no conclusive data on how to most effectively apply them.

"Focusing on how obesity and prefrontal activity are related, how this relationship affects our brain, and how it can ultimately allow us to exert control and make better dietary choices will be really important in thwarting the obesity epidemic," Lowe says. "The science is really promising."
-end-
The authors acknowledge support from the BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Fellowships at The Western University, funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, and the Australian Research Council.

Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Lowe et al.: "The Prefrontal Cortex and Obesity: A Health Neuroscience Perspective" https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30022-1

Trends in Cognitive Sciences (@TrendsCognSci), published by Cell Press, is a monthly review journal that brings together research in psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and neuroscience. It provides a platform for the interaction of these disciplines and the evolution of cognitive science as an independent field of study. Visit: http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences. To receive Cell Press media alerts, please contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

Related Obesity Articles:

Obesity is in the eye of the beholder
Doctors have a specific definition of what it means to be overweight or obese, but in the social world, gender, race and generation matter a lot for whether people are judged as 'thin enough' or 'too fat.'
Type 2 diabetes and obesity -- what do we really know?
Social and economic factors have led to a dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes and obesity around the world.
Three in 4 don't know obesity causes cancer
Three out of four (75 percent) people in the UK are unaware of the link between obesity and cancer, according to a new Cancer Research UK report published today.
Obesity on the rise in Indonesia
Obesity is on the rise in Indonesia, one of the largest studies of the double burden of malnutrition in children has revealed.
Obesity rates are not declining in US youth
A clear and significant increase in obesity continued from 1999 through 2014, according to an analysis of data on United States children and adolescents age 2 to 19 years.
How does the environment affect obesity?
Researchers will be examining how agricultural and food processing practices may affect brown fat activity directly or indirectly.
Obesity Day to highlight growing obesity epidemic in Europe
The growing obesity epidemic, which is predicted to affect more than half of all European citizens by 2030, will be the focus of European Obesity Day to be held on May 21.
Understanding obesity from the inside out
Researchers developed a new laboratory method that allowed them to identify GABA as a key player in the complex brain processes that control appetite and metabolism.
Epigenetic switch for obesity
Obesity can sometimes be shut down.
Immunological Aspects of Obesity
This FASEB Conference focuses on the interactions between obesity and immune cells, focusing in particular on how inflammation in various organs influences obesity and obesity-related complications.

Related Obesity Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#529 Do You Really Want to Find Out Who's Your Daddy?
At least some of you by now have probably spit into a tube and mailed it off to find out who your closest relatives are, where you might be from, and what terrible diseases might await you. But what exactly did you find out? And what did you give away? In this live panel at Awesome Con we bring in science writer Tina Saey to talk about all her DNA testing, and bioethicist Debra Mathews, to determine whether Tina should have done it at all. Related links: What FamilyTreeDNA sharing genetic data with police means for you Crime solvers embraced...