A small study released in 2017 has documented a possible link between brain activity and the risk of obesity in teens. The study scanned the brains of teenagers while they were exposed to tempting phrases about food and a buffet of low and high-calorie food. The study called these phrases “food cues.” The results of this study show that there might be a connection between reduced activity in the self-regulation portions of the brain and the risks of adult obesity.


The Research Process

The scientists in this research used a functional MRI to scan the brains of 36 New York teens. Of the 36, 10 were overweight, 16 were lean but had a family history of obesity, and 10 were lean with no family history of obesity. The subjects were between the ages of 14 and 19. They were trying to identify neural responses to food cues.

One of the things they discovered was that food stimuli, as only words, showed a reaction in portions of the brain linked with reward and emotional response in all teens. The most curious aspect of this research was in another detail that was revealed. Of the teens tested, members of the test that were lean, but had a family history of obesity, showed less activity in the area of self-regulation in the brain. The teens who were overweight showed the same reduction.


Their Findings

All of this suggests that reduced activity in the self-regulation area of the brain might be a better way to predict obesity than just measuring responses to food stimuli.  “It’s remarkable to me that we see these effects just by having participants read words like ‘French fries’ or ‘chocolate spread,’” said Susan Carnell, Ph.D. and assistant professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University and the paper’s first author.


  • Over half of all teens in America are overweight or obese.


already know that children of overweight parents are at risk for obesity. Researchers were hoping to find a better understanding of the risk factors related to obesity. Being overweight is linked to a laundry list of health risks. Understanding obesity could lead to reducing health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.


How does this help us?

The researchers behind this study are not implying that we all should start giving our teens brain scans to identify their risk factors. However, the results of this study could affect how we treat obesity in the future. If all of these results are true, then it means that there are signs of obesity that beyond our personal control. It could indicate that obesity has genetic facets beyond just what we choose to eat.

This study suggests that future treatment and prevention of obesity could focus on improving the self-regulatory parts of the body. Carnell states that “strengthen(ing) the self-regulatory system may be more useful for teenagers than typical programs focusing purely on diet and physical activity, which have not been very successful at reducing or preventing obesity.”


For more information, take a look at [hopkinsmedicine.org].