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Brains of Obese Kids More Responsive to Sugar

Update Date: Dec 11, 2014 10:47 PM EST

The brains of obese children are different than those of normal-weight children, according to a new study on tasting sugar.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, found that the brains of obese children literally light up differently when tasting sugar. The study revealed that this more intense sense of "food reward" suggests that some children have brain circuitries that increase their sugar craving throughout life.

"The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar," first author Kerri Boutelle, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and founder of the university's Center for Health Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR), said in a news release.

"That we can detect these brain differences in children as young as eight years old is the most remarkable and clinically significant part of the study," Boutelle added.

The latest study involved 23 children between the ages of eight and 12. Researchers scanned the brains of the children while they tasted one-fifth of a teaspoon of water mixed with table sugar.

The findings revealed that obese children showed heightened activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, regions of the brain involved in perception, emotion, awareness, taste, motivation and reward. However, obese children did not show any heightened neuronal activity in the striatum, which is also part of the response-reward circuitry and whose activity has been linked to obese adults.

Researchers noted that this could be because the striatum doesn't reach maturity until adolescence.

"Any obesity expert will tell you that losing weight is hard and that the battle has to be won on the prevention side," concluded Boutelle, who is also a clinical psychologist. "The study is a wake-up call that prevention has to start very early because some children may be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards or they may be able to learn a relationship between food and feeling better faster than other children."

The findings were published in the journal International Journal of Obesity.

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