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Obesity and depression connected in kids’ brains, Stanford study finds

Childhood obesity and depression appear linked in the brains of children and teens with both conditions, according to new Stanford research.

Childhood obesity and depression appear to be linked in the brains of children and teens with both conditions, according to new research published today in Hormones and Behavior.

Young people struggling with both depression and weight issues can experience a difficult cycle of eating to try to make themselves feel better, followed by weight gain, bullying from peers about their weight, and intensified depressive symptoms. And when the two problems occur early in life, they tend to persist.

A Stanford team led by child and adolescent psychiatrist Manpreet Singh, MD, wanted to understand brain changes that might underlie both conditions as a first step toward finding more effective treatments.

The team looked for abnormalities in the brain's reward centers. Prior research on kids and teens with either obesity or depression alone showed abnormalities in the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex. Differences in these two brain areas had also been identified in prior Stanford studies of adults with both obesity and depression, as our press release explains:

'With this new study, we are trying to understand the earliest age at which this vulnerability begins, and also the earliest time we will be able to intervene when we find the appropriate intervention,' said the study’s senior author, Natalie Rasgon, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. 'Early intervention is important because, later in life, these are the same brain areas which will ultimately be vulnerable to neurodegenerative processes as well. It’s a double whammy.'

The researchers conducted MRI brain scans on 42 kids and teens aged 9-17 who had both obesity and depression. They found low volumes in the two reward-processing areas, and also documented connections between the exact nature of the brain differences and study participants' levels of insulin resistance, a diabetes precursor.

Knowing about the neurological basis for obesity and depression may help lessen the stigma of the conditions and encourage kids to get treatment, Singh told me. Her team is now conducting a longitudinal study to see how the subjects' brains change with time. They're also excited by possible applications of the findings.

From the press release:

Understanding how the brain differs in young people with obesity and depression also provides scientists with an important baseline for future research to test the efficacy of new treatments, Singh said. In clinical trials of future therapies, brain MRIs may help researchers understand if the treatments have the desired effect.

'That’s the exciting promise of the next phase of this work: We’ll be utilizing the information we get from the brain to develop targeted, mechanistic treatments that we can then track to see if they have the effect they’re supposed to have on the brain,' Singh said.

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