What is obesity: a Brain Disorder?
Research published this week in the international journal Obesity Reviews posits that there may be a vicious cycle between obesity and our ability to think. Thus, what is obesity? Researchers at the University of New South Wales believe that the cycle is one where difficulties in thinking that involve planning, reasoning and problem-solving appear to augment weight gain. On the other half of the cycle, people who are obese are more likely to perform poorly in mental acuity tests that measure reasoning abilities and task planning.
Executive decisions a weighty problem
The data supporting their findings is from a review of 38 studies on obesity and cognitive function where the researchers found a strong association between obesity and weakness in the executive part of the brain. The executive part of the brain is the region that controls problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning, planning and organizational skills.
Dr. Evelyn Smith, the lead author of study, admits that the finding is controversial but should not be interpreted as meaning that all obese people are cognitively deficient. “On average they do have more problems with problem solving and other executive brain or cognitive functions than normal weight individuals,” states Dr. Smith. “Executive function is the most common cognitive deficiency found in obese individuals. It encompasses a diverse range of processes that facilitate initiation, planning and achievement of complex goals, all of which may impact on eating behavior and activity.”
An anorexia answer?
While obesity is typically labeled as a lifestyle disorder, their research results point toward obesity being a brain function problem as well. And, that there is a genetic element that makes some individuals more susceptible to obesity and cognitive difficulties that may in turn be triggered by lifestyle factors.
However, this does not mean that there is no hope for those who are currently finding it impossible to shed pounds. According to Dr. Smith, using cognitive remediation therapy similar to that used on patients with anorexia could be an effective intervention for obesity by improving certain cognitive processes and in turn helping individuals maintain a healthy lifestyle long term.
Finding the path to a healthy lifestyle, however, is all too often a rough road that most cannot navigate very long. Because of this, Dr. Smith believes that we must develop new ways to approach the problem of obesity in the world. “Because current strategies for treating obesity are not successful long-term, there’s an urgency to invest in new obesity research,” Dr. Smith said. “Additional investigations are required to further understand the biological mechanisms and bi-directional relationship between cognition and obesity, and also to confirm whether executive function in children and adolescents can predict obesity in adults.”
In collaboration with Kings College London and the University of Western Syndney, Dr. Smith is now working on new therapies to treat obesity.
Source: The University of New South Wales, UNSW Media Office, 02 9385 8107 or 0424 580 208