USC study finds that brain centres for reward and inhibition may impact childhood obesity
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > USC study finds that brain centres for reward and inhibition may impact childhood obesity

USC study finds that brain centres for reward and inhibition may impact childhood obesity

by Freya Lucas

April 20, 2022

Brain scans for children aged between nine and ten years of age with binge eating disorder have shown differences in gray matter density compared to their unaffected peers, with associated research showing that abnormal development in the brain’s centers for reward and inhibition may play a role in binge eating.


Binge eating disorder affects about 3-5 per cent of the U.S. population and is characterised by frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food and a sense of having no control over the behaviour. 


The recently published study is available online in the journal Psychiatry Research and may be of interest to those working in the outside school hours care (OSHC) sector.


“In children with binge eating disorder, we see abnormality in brain development in brain regions specifically linked to reward and impulsivity, or the ability to inhibit reward,” lead author Professor Stuart Murray explained. 


“These children have a very, very heightened reward sensitivity, especially toward calorically dense, high-sugar foods,” the Professor explained. “The findings underscore the fact that this is not a lack of discipline for these kids.”


Eating disorders in young people soared during the pandemic, experts said, along with steep increases in hospitalisations. Social isolation, stress, disruption of routine and a social media-fueled quest for perfection all exacerbated disorders such as anorexia, muscle dysmorphia and binge eating.


Binge eating disorder puts people at risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome, abnormal cardiac function and suicidal thoughts. Treatment goals include reducing the frequency of binge eating episodes by removing “trigger” foods, as well as addressing underlying anxiety or depression. Treatment with medication and talk therapy is effective about only half the time, Professor Murray said.


For this study, Professor Murray and his colleagues analysed brain scans and other data from 71 children with diagnosed binge eating disorder and 74 children without binge eating disorder, who are part of a large longitudinal study called the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study. That study includes data of 11,875 children aged between nine and ten years who were enrolled in 2016-2018 and recruited from 21 sites around the U.S.


In the children with binge eating disorder, they saw elevations in gray matter density in areas that are typically “pruned” during healthy brain development. Synaptic pruning, a development phase that occurs between the ages of two and ten years, eliminates synapses that are no longer used, making the brain more efficient. Disturbed synaptic pruning is linked to a number of psychiatric disorders.


“This study suggests to me that binge eating disorder is wired in the brain, even from a very, very early age,” Professor Murray said. “The question that we don’t know, which is something that we will address in time, is whether successful treatment of binge eating disorder in children helps correct brain development. The prognosis of almost all psychiatric diseases is better if you can treat them in childhood.”


To access the study please see here

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