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Childhood obesity rates have risen dramatically over the past few decades. Although obesity has been linked to poorer neurocognitive functioning in adults, much less is known about this relationship in children and adolescents. Therefore, we conducted a systematic review to examine the relationship between obesity and obesity-related behaviors with neurocognitive functioning in youth. We reviewed articles from 1976 to 2013 using PsycInfo, PubMed, Medline and Google Scholar. Search terms included cognitive function, neurocognitive function/performance, executive function, impulsivity, self-regulation, effortful control, cognitive control, inhibition, delayed gratification, memory, attention, language, motor, visuo-spatial, academic achievement, obesity, overweight, body mass index, waist-hip ratio, adiposity and body fat. Articles were excluded if participants had health problems known to affect cognitive functioning, the study used imaging as the only outcome measure, they were non-peer-reviewed dissertations, theses, review papers, commentaries, or they were non-English articles. Sixty-seven studies met inclusion criteria for this review. Overall, we found data that support a negative relationship between obesity and various aspects of neurocognitive functioning, such as executive functioning, attention, visuo-spatial performance, and motor skill. The existing literature is mixed on the effects among obesity, general cognitive functioning, language, learning, memory, and academic achievement. Executive dysfunction is associated with obesity-related behaviors, such as increased intake, disinhibited eating, and less physical activity. Physical activity is positively linked with motor skill. More longitudinal research is needed to determine the directionality of such relationships, to point towards crucial intervention time periods in the development of children, and to inform effective treatment programs.
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REVIEW
Neurocognitive correlates of obesity and obesity-related behaviors
in children and adolescents
J Liang
1,2
, BE Matheson
1,3
, WH Kaye
2
and KN Boutelle
1,2
Childhood obesity rates have risen dramatically over the past few decades. Although obesity has been linked to poorer
neurocognitive functioning in adults, much less is known about this relationship in children and adolescents. Therefore, we
conducted a systematic review to examine the relationship between obesity and obesity-related behaviors with neurocognitive
functioning in youth. We reviewed articles from 1976 to 2013 using PsycInfo, PubMed, Medline and Google Scholar. Search terms
included cognitive function, neurocognitive function/performance, executive function, impulsivity, self-regulation, effortful control,
cognitive control, inhibition, delayed gratification, memory, attention, language, motor, visuo-spatial, academic achievement,
obesity, overweight, body mass index, waist-hip ratio, adiposity and body fat. Articles were excluded if participants had health
problems known to affect cognitive functioning, the study used imaging as the only outcome measure, they were non-peer-
reviewed dissertations, theses, review papers, commentaries, or they were non-English articles. Sixty-seven studies met inclusion
criteria for this review. Overall, we found data that support a negative relationship between obesity and various aspects of
neurocognitive functioning, such as executive functioning, attention, visuo-spatial performance, and motor skill. The existing
literature is mixed on the effects among obesity, general cognitive functioning, language, learning, memory, and academic
achievement. Executive dysfunction is associated with obesity-related behaviors, such as increased intake, disinhibited eating, and
less physical activity. Physical activity is positively linked with motor skill. More longitudinal research is needed to determine the
directionality of such relationships, to point towards crucial intervention time periods in the development of children, and to inform
effective treatment programs.
International Journal of Obesity advance online publication, 27 August 2013; doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.142
Keywords: neurocognition; cognitive functioning; pediatric obesity; treatment implications; obesity-related behaviors; children
INTRODUCTION
Obesity is an epidemic that affects individuals worldwide and
is associated with negative health sequelae such as hypertension,
diabetes, and certain cancers,
1–3
and increasing health care costs.
4
The prevalence of overweight and obesity in children in the
United States is currently 31%.
5
Specifically, the prevalence of
obesity has increased from 13.7% of children and 11.5%
of adolescents in the 1988–1994 period
6
to 17.1% of children
and adolescents by the year 2010.
5
Moreover, research shows
that children who are overweight are more likely to remain
overweight as adults.
7
These alarming statistics support the
necessity for effective interventions to target obesity in children,
and to look beyond basic nutrition and physical activity
recommendations.
Family-based behavioral treatment (FBT) for childhood obesity
typically results in weight loss in the participating child;
8
however,
data on the long-term outcomes and maintenance of these
programs show that only one-third of participating children are a
healthy weight in adulthood.
9
Thus, two-thirds of children who
participate in FBT do not respond as favorably. More research is
needed to understand why certain children are successful in these
programs and others are not, with the goal of helping to reduce
the burden of obesity.
Neurocognitive functioning, which influences cognitions, emo-
tions, and behaviors linked to obesity, may be an important, yet
under-emphasized factor, in informing existing and future weight-
loss interventions. While limited research has emerged examining
differences in neurocognitive functioning between obese
versus non-obese youth, only a few studies have explored how
neurocognitive factors relate to behaviors that promote weight
gain.
10–12
It is possible that obesity-related behaviors, such as food
intake and physical activity, may play a role in the relationship
between neurocognitive functioning and weight (see Figure 1);
however, no prior research has systematically examined
this. Increasing our knowledge base of whether neurocognitive
functioning is associated with obesity and obesity-related
behaviors in children and adolescents could better inform
treatment development, render more effective and tailored
interventions, improve success in treatment, and reduce dropout
rate in weight-loss interventions.
13
In addition, intervening earlier
in a child’s development may lead to greater success in reducing
weight gain and preventing obesity later in adulthood.
This review seeks to evaluate the state of the current evidence,
to identify gaps in the literature, and to provide recommendations
for future research and treatment development for overweight
and obese youth. The specific goal of the current paper is to
1
Department of Pediatrics, Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA;
2
Department of Psychiatry, University of
California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA and
3
Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, USA. Correspondence: Professor KN Boutelle, Department of
Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research, University of California, San Diego, 8950 Villa La Jolla Drive, Suite A-203, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA.
E-mail:kboutelle@ucsd.edu
Received 4 October 2012; revised 22 July 2013; accepted 28 July 2013; accepted article preview online 5 August 2013
International Journal of Obesity (2013), 113
&
2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited All rights reserved 0307-0565/13
www.nature.com/ijo
address the following question: Is there a relationship between
various aspects of neurocognitive functioning, obesity, and
obesity-related behaviors in youth (e.g., overeating, reduced
physical activity, greater consumption of calorically dense foods)?
We hypothesize that neurocognitive functioning will be negatively
correlated with obesity and obesity-related behaviors in children
and adolescents.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Articles from 1976 to 2013 were reviewed (no studies meeting inclusion
criteria prior to 1976 were found). Inclusion criteria were empirical research
that examined the relationship between a) at least one measure of
neurocognitive functioning and b) at least one measure of obesity or
weight, or at least one measure of an obesity-related behavior. Measures of
cognitive functioning were based on neuropsychological tests, self-report
measures, or performance-based tasks.
Searches were performed on the following databases: PsycInfo, PubMed,
Medline, EBSCO, and GoogleScholar. Studies with participants of all body
mass index (BMI) levels and that included participants ages 18 and under
were included. Search terms included cognitive function, neurocognitive
function/performance, executive function, impulsivity, self-regulation,
effortful control, cognitive control, inhibition, delayed gratification,
memory, attention, language, motor, visuo-spatial, academic, obesity,
overweight, BMI, waist-hip ratio, waist circumference (WC) adiposity, body
fat, physical activity, sedentary activity, overeating, and fruit/vegetable
intake. Articles that did not meet criteria were excluded for the following
reasons: (1) The study had participants with health conditions that could
influence their neurocognitive performance, for example, diabetes,
hypertension, intellectual or developmental disability (mental retardation,
Down’s syndrome), eating disorder. If a study included participants with
and without these conditions, only results from participants without the
conditions were reported. (2) The study used imaging as the only measure
of neurocognitive functioning. If studies include both imaging results and
neurocognitive tests, only results from neurocognitive tests were reported.
Imaging studies were excluded because the significant difference in
methodology between imaging studies and those using neuropsycholo-
gical testing or self-report measures would make it difficult to compare
and contrast the findings; it would be challenging to determine whether or
not to attribute discrepancies in findings to differences in methodology.
Furthermore, two recently published papers have already reviewed studies
using brain imaging to assess brain functioning in relation to obesity in
children and adults (see Bruce et al.
14
; Carnell et al.
15
). (3) Non-English
articles, dissertations and theses, commentaries and review papers. The
authors are English-speaking only, and due to the language barrier, we
could only include articles in English. Out of the 158 identified articles, 67
met criteria for inclusion.
The presentation of the following literature is organized into two
main parts: part I—neurocognitive functioning and obesity and
Part II—neurocognitive functioning and obesity-related behaviors. In
part I, we present the literature on obesity and different areas of
neurocognitive functioning: general intellectual/cognitive functioning,
executive functioning, memory, attention, language, visuo-spatial ability,
motor skills and academic achievement. Although these areas of
neurocognitive functioning have widely-varied definitions, we have
operationalized the terms in Table 1. In part II, we present the literature
on obesity-related behaviors and the areas of neurocognitive functioning
where research is available, using the same definitions as stated in Table 1.
A summary of the studies reviewed is presented in Table 2 (studies
examining the relationship between obesity and neurocognitive function-
ing) and Table 3 (studies examining the relationship between obesity-
related behaviors and neurocognitive functioning).
RESULTS
Part I: neurocognitive functioning and obesity
General intellectual/cognitive functioning. Four studies demon-
strated a negative relationship between general cognitive
functioning and weight. In cross-sectional studies comparing
overweight or obese children and adolescents with healthy
weight participants, global functioning, performance on tests of
cognitive ability, and estimated full scale IQ were lower in
overweight or obese youth than healthy weight youth.
16,17
Within
a sample of overweight, sedentary youth, BMI z-score, WC, percent
body fat, visceral fat and abdominal fat were all negatively
correlated with cognitive ability.
18
In a longitudinal study, general
cognitive ability (measuring verbal and nonverbal abilities) during
childhood predicted a lower likelihood of obesity during
adulthood.
19
Neurocognitive
Functioning
Obesity-related
Behaviors
Obesity
Figure 1. Neurocognitive model of obesity and obesity-related
behaviors.
Table 1. Operational definitions for subconstructs of neurocognitive
functioning
Area of neurocognitive
functioning
Operationalized definition
General intellectual/
cognitive functioning
General mental or intellectual ability and
measured by tests that encompass a
variety of different content areas, such as
verbal, quantitative, spatial ability,
processing speed and memory.
Executive
functioning
A set of processes that involve mental
control and self-regulation and controls
and manages other cognitive processes. It
encompasses functions such as planning,
decision-making, problem-solving,
regulation of one’s behaviors and emotions
(for example, inhibition), abstraction,
mental flexibility, set-shifting (the ability to
switch between different tasks or mental
sets) and delayed gratification.
Learning and
memory
The acquisition, encoding, storage and
retrieval of information (includes skills and
knowledge).
Attention Selection and concentration on certain
aspects of the environment, in the context
of competing stimuli. This cognitive process
includes the ability to sustain concentration
and inhibit attention to other stimuli.
Language Verbal skills and abilities that include
reading, spelling, pronunciation, grammar,
rhythm of speech and fluency.
Visuo-spatial
ability
Understanding visual information and their
spatial relationships. This includes mental
imagery (for example, mental rotation),
visual perception and processing,
navigation, depth perception and visual
construction of objects in space.
Motor skill A set of skills that involve coordination and
sequencing of movements to achieve a
particular goal. This area of functioning also
includes balance, fine and gross motor
movements, speed, strength, agility and
manual dexterity.
Academic
achievement
Performance based on standardized tests
on reading, math or other subjects within a
school or school-like setting.
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
2
International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13 & 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited
Table 2. Studies examining the neurocognitive correlates of obesity in children and adolescents
Authors Population N Age range (mean, s.d.) Areas of cognitive functioning
assessed (measures)
Findings (abbreviated)
Barrigas and
Fragoso
67
Children 792 6–12 years Assessment Tests; academic
achievement on Portuguese, Math
and Science; reasoning ability
(Raven’s Colored Progressive
Matrices Test)
ø: Academic achievement
Baxter et al.
68
Children 1504 10 years Academic achievement
(standardized Tests in English, math,
social studies and science)
ø: Academic achievement
Best et al.
70
Children, overweight 241 7–12 years Relative reinforcing value of food;
impulsivity; delay discounting
( ): Relative reinforcing value of
food, delay discounting of food
Bonato and Boland
33
Children, obese, and
healthy weight
40 8–11 years Inhibition ø: inhibition
Bonato and Boland
40
Children, obese, and
healthy weight
40 8–11 years Delay of gratification ( ): Delay of gratification (edible
incentives only)
Bonvin et al.
62
Children 529 2–4 years (3.4, 0.6) Motor skills (Zurich Neuromotor
Assessment Test)
ø: Motor skills
Bourget and White
31
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
girls
36 5–9 years (overweight
7.13; healthy weight 7.19)
Delay of gratification, inhibition ø: Delay of gratification;
( þ ): less effective inhibition
strategies
Braet and Crombez
47
Children and
adolescents
74 9–16 years (obese 13.3, 2;
controls 13.9, 2)
Interference (Stroop task, emotio nal
Stroop); language (vocabulary
subtest WISC-R)
( ): Lower reading skills;
( ): interference (color of food
words in Stroop); ø: language level
Bruce et al.
102
Children, obese,
overweight, and
healthy weight
59 8–12 years (10.29, 1.39) Delay of gratification ( ): Delay of gratification
Castelli et al.
65
Children, 3–5 grade
public school
students
259 (9.5, 0.74) Academic achievement (ISAT) ( ): BMI and academic,
mathematics, and reading
achievement; ( þ ): aerobic fitness
and academic achievement
Cliff et al.
52
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
132 6–10 years (8.4, 1.0) Motor skills (fundamental
movement skill mastery)
( ): Motor skills
Cliff et al.
53
Children,
overweight/obese
and healthy weight
153 6–10 years (8.3, 1.1) Locomotor sk ills, object-control
skills (Test of Gross Motor
Development)
( ): Locomotor, object-control,
gross motor development skills
Cserjesi et al.
39
Children, obese and
healthy weight boys
24 obese (12.1, 0.9), healthy
weight (12.44, 0.51)
Working memory (digit span on
WAIS-III); Logical reasoning (Raven’s
progressive matrix); Verbal flexibility
and inhibition (semantic verbal
fluency Test); Attention and visual
scanning (D2 attention endurance
Test); and Cognitive flexibility and
set-shifting (WCST)
ø: Memory, logic reasoning, verbal
fluency; ( ): cognitive flexibility
and shifting, attention endurance
Datar and Sturm
66
Children,
kindergarten at T1,
third grade at T2
B7000 At T2 (3rd grade: 9.24,
0.34)
Math and reading assessment;
teacher-reported behaviors
(approaches to learning, self-
control, attentiveness, task
persistence, flexibility, organization,
eagerness to learn, learning
independence)
( ): Weight gain and reading/
mathematics (girls only); ( ):
weight gain over time and reading/
mathematics scores at baseline
Davis and Cooper
18
Children, overweight
and obese
170 7–11 years (9.3, 1.0) Cognitive Assessment System,
mathematics and reading
(Woodcock-Johnson Tests of
Achievement II, Broad Reading and
Broad Mathematics clusters),
parent-reported behaviors
(Conner’s Parent Rating Scales-
Revised), teacher-reported
behaviors (Conners Teacher Ratings
Scales-Revised)
( ): cognitive performance,
attention, math/reading scores;
( þ ): parent-reported cognitive
problems/inattention, teacher-
reported cognitive problems/
inattention
Delgado-Rico et al.
35
Adolescents,
overweight
42 12–17 (14.19, 1.38) Impulsivity (UPPS-P); mental
flexibility (letter-number
sequencing); inhibition (Stroop);
decision-making (Iowa Gambling
Task)
( ): weight loss and impulsivity;
( þ ): weight loss and inhibition
Delgado-Rico et al.
36
Adolescents, obese,
overweight and
healthy weight
63 12–17 years Impulsivity (UPPS-P); mental
flexibility (Delis-K aplan Executive
Function System—Color Work
Interference Test)
( þ ): Impulsivity ; ( ): mental
flexibility
D’Hondt et al.
60
Children, obese,
overweight, and
healthy weight
540 5–12.8 years (9.3, 1.6) Fine motor skills (Movement
Assessment Battery for Children)
( ): Fine motor skills
D’Hondt et al.
58
Children,
overweight, obese,
healthy weight
117 5–10 years Motor skills (Movement Assessment
Battery for Children)
( ): Motor skills, balance, ball sk ills
D’Hondt et al.
64
Children, obese,
overweight, and
healthy weight
72 7–13 years (10.5, 1.4) Motor coordination
(Ko¨ rperkoordinations Test fu¨r
Kinder; walking backwards, moving
sideways, one-leg hopping, two-leg
hopping)
( ): Motor coordination;
( þ ): participation in treatment
program and improvement in
motor coordination
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
3
& 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13
Table 2. (Continued )
Authors Population N Age range (mean, s.d.) Areas of cognitive functioning
assessed (measures)
Findings (abbreviated)
D’Hondt et al.
63
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
100 6–10 years Motor coordination
(Ko¨ rperkoordinations Test fu¨r
Kinder)
( ): Motor coordination (baseline
and 2 years later); ( ): motor
coordination progress over time
Francis and
Susman
43
Children 1061 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 12 years Delay of gratification and self-
control
( ): Delay of gratification and self-
control
Gale et al.
19
Children at T1, adults
at T2
6147
(1958
cohort);
6445
(1970
cohort)
11 years (1958 cohort
time 1); 33 years (1958
cohort time 2); 10 years
(1970 cohort time 1); 30
years (1970 cohort time 2)
1958 Cohort had 40 verbal and 40
nonverbal items from National
Foundation for Educational
Research; 1970 cohort had a
modifed version of the British
Ability Scales, including word
definitions, word similarities, recall
digits and recall matrices
( ): Childhood cognitive ability
and adult obesity;
ø: childhood cognitive ability and
childhood BMI;
( ): childhood motor coordination
and prevelance of obesity in
adulthood
Gelleret al.
46
Children, obese and
healthy weight
48 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders Delay of gratification paradigm ø: Delay of gratification
Graziano et al.
32
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
57 Assessments
administered at age 2
and 5.5
Self-regulation (laboratory tasks) ( ): Self-regulation (poorer self-
regulation skills at age 2 related to
increased risk of obesity at age 5.5)
Guerrieri et al.
26
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
78 8–10 years (9, 0.60) Response inhibition (Stop-signal
task); Reward sensitivity (Door
opening task)
( ): Response inhibition;
ø: reward sensitivity
Gunstad et al.
21
Children and
adolescents,
underweight,
healthy weight, at
risk of overweight
and overweight
478 6–19 years (12.45, 3.26) Estimated intellectual functioning
(Spot-the-Word task); Attention
(Digit Span Back ward); Executive
functioning (switching of
attention—letter/number); Memory
(Verbal Recall), Language (Animal
Fluency); and Motor (Finger
Tapping)
ø: Cognitive Test performance
Holcke et al.
24
Children and
adolescents, obese
and one overweight
30 8–15 years (12.0) Motor skills, executive functions,
perception, memory, language,
learning, social skills and emotional/
behavioral problems (5–15
questionnaire)
( ): Executive function, motor
skills, memory, learning, language
Jansen et al.
51
Children, overweight
and healthy controls
32 9–10 years (overweight–
10, 0.89; controls–9.94,
0.68)
Perceptual reasoning (Colored
Progressive Matrices Test); Motor
skills (DKT; jumping, strength,
endruance, flexibility), chronometric
mental rotation Test
( ): Motor coordination, mental
rotation performance
Kamijo et al.
28
Children 126 7 and 9 years Inhibitory control (Go NoGo Task);
Achievement (WRAT-3)
( ): Inhibitory control,
achievement
Kantomaa et al.
59
Children 8061 8 and 16 years Parent and child self-report of
motor function
( ): Motor function
Krombholz
22
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
350 Overweight (4.43, 0.8),
healthy weight (4.43, 0.6)
Motor skills (Motor Test Battery);
verbal ability (Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test); concentration
(Frankfurter Test fu¨r Fu¨ nfja¨ hrige—
Konzentration); and intelligence
(Culture Fair Test)
( ): Motor skills; ø: manual
dexterity, verbal ability,
concentration, intelligen ce
Li et al.
16
Children and
adolescents, healthy
weight, at risk
overweight,
overweight
2519 8–16 years (12.03) Nonverbal reasoning and visuo-
spatial construction (WISC-R) block
design Test:); Attention and working
memory (digit span); Reading and
arithmetic (WRAT-R)
( ): Nonverbal reasoning/
visuouspatial construction; ( ):
academic achievement and
cognitive functioning
Lokken et al.
29
Adolescents, obese 25 15–19 years (15.88, 1.69) Academic achievement (WRAT-4);
general intellectual functioning
(WISC-IV); executive functioning
(Computerized Cognitive Test
Battery—digit span, continuous
performance task, verbal
interference, switching of attention,
maze task, Go NoGo Task);
Obese adolescents had decreased
performance, compared to
normative data, on attention,
mental flexibility, and disinhibition
London and
Castrechini
69
Children and
adolescents
2735 4th to 7th grade, 6th to
9th grade
Academic achievement (California
standardized Test in math and
English language arts)
ø: Academic achievement Tests at
baseline and over four year period
Lopes et al.
61
Children 7175 6–14 years Motor coordination (Kiphard-
Schilling body coordination Test,
Ko¨ rperkoordination-Test-fu¨ r-Kinder;
balance, lateral jumping, hopping
one leg, shifting platforms)
( ): Motor coordination (stronger
in childhood than early
adolescence)
Maayan et al.
17
Adolescents, obese
and lean
91 14–21 years (obese—17.5,
1.6; lean—17.3, 1.6)
Attention (Trail Making Test Part A);
Cognitive Flexibility (Trail Making
Test Part B); verbal fluency (COWAT),
response inhibition (Stroop Task),
Attention/Concentration Index
(WRAML) and Working Memory
Index (WRAML)
( ): Estimated full-scale IQ; ( ):
inhibition, cognitive flexibility,
verbal fluency, attention and
concentration, working memory
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
4
International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13 & 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited
On the other hand, a few studies found no relationship between
general cognitive ability and weight. Obese preschool children
performed similarly to non-obese children on a test battery
measuring cognitive development.
20
Other studies have shown no
relationship between BMI, intelligence and cognitive performance
in children and adolescents.
21,22
Table 2. (Continued )
Authors Population N Age range (mean, s.d.) Areas of cognitive functioning
assessed (measures)
Findings (abbreviated)
Mond et al.
20
Children 9415 4–8 years (6.0, 0.37) Memory and concentration,
perserverance, abstraction, visual
perception, arithmetic (Bavarian
Model for school entry
examination)
( ): Perseverance in females; ( ):
motor skills in males; ø: abstrac tion,
visual perception, arithmetic,
memory and concentration,
speech
Morano et al.
54
Children 80 4.5, 0.5 Locomotor skills, object-control
skills (Test of Gross Motor
Development)
( ): Locomotor, object-control,
gross motor development skills
Nederkoorn et al.
13
Children, healthy
weight, obese
63 12–15 years Response perseveration (Door
opening task); Inhibitory control
(Stop-signal task); Impulsivity (BIS/
BAS scales).
( ): Response perseveration,
inhibitory control, impulsivity; ( þ ):
weight loss in treatment and
inhibitory control
Nederkoorn et al.
34
Children, obese 26 8–12 years (9.3, 1.2) Impulsivity and inhibition (Stop
signal task)
( þ ): Impulsivity (even 12 months
post-tx)
Nederkoorn et al.
30
Children 89 7–9 years Inhibition (Stop signal task) ( ) Inhibition (with food cues)
Okely et al.
55
Children and
adolescents
4363 Grades 4, 6, 8, 10 Motor skills (fundamental
movement skills)
( ): Motor skills, advanced
locomotor skills, object-control
skills
Pauli-Pott et al.
38
Children and
adolescents,
overweight and
obese
111 7–15 years (11.1, 2.0) Inhibitory control and attention
(Go-NoGo, attention assessment
battery Testbatterie zur
Aufmerksamkeitsprufung)
( þ ): Weight loss and impulsivity
(adolescents only)
Poulsen et al.
57
Children, overweight
and healthy weight
116 overweight (8.75, 1.4),
healthy weight (8.25, 1.5)
Motor performance (Bruninks-
Oseretsky Test of Motor
Performance-2 subtests: bilateral
coordination, upper limb
coordination, strength, balance,
running speed, agility)
( ): Motor skills
Seeyave et al.
44
Children 805 4 years T1, 11 years T2 Delay of gratification (Mischel and
Ebbesen’s delay of gratification
waiting task)
( ): Delay of gratification
Sigal and Adler
41
Children (boys only,
obese and healthy
weight)
64 8–13 years Delay of gratification (laboratory
paradigm)
( ): Delay of gratification
Soetens and Braet
48
Adolescents,
overweight and
healthy weight
87 12–18 years; overweight
(14.98, 1.51); healthy
weight (14.74, 1.81)
Attention processing (Imbedded
word task); free-recall (mazes from
WISC-R)
( þ ): Recall of food words;
ø: recall of control words:
ø: attention interference effects for
food
Staiano et al.
25
Adolescents,
overweight and
obese
54 15–19 years (16.46) Spatial skills, response inhibition,
motor planning, viusal scanning,
speed, and flexibility (design
fluency and trail making subscales
of Delis-Kaplan Executive Function
System)
( þ ): Weight loss and executive
function
van Egmond-
Froehlich et al.
49
Children and
adolescents,
overweight and
obese
394 8–16 years (11.7, 2.0) Inattention and hyperactivity/
impulsivity (parent report on the
Strengths and Difficulties
Questionnaire)
( ): Weight loss and inattention,
impulsivity
Verbeken et al.
23
Children, healthy
weight, overweight
81 10–14 years Verbal inhibition (Opposite worlds
Test); Inhibition (Circle drawing task,
Stop Task); Motivation inhibition
(Door opening task); Delay aversion
(Maudsley index of childhood delay
aversion)
ø: Verbal inhibition, delay aversion;
( þ ): inhibition circle drawing; ( ):
inhibition stop task, motivation
inhibition
Verdejo-Garcia
et al.
27
Adolescents, healthy
weight, excessive
weight
61 13–16 years Self-report questionnaires of
impulsivity and sensitivity;
Neuropsychological battery
(intelligence, working memory,
planning, reasoning, inhibition, set-
shifting, self-regulation, decision-
making)—see actual article for full
list of tests.
ø: Impulsivity, sensitivity to reward/
punishment, work ing memory,
planning;
( ): inhibition, flexibility, decision-
making, set-shifting
Zhu et al.
56
Children 2029 9–10 years (healthy
weight 9.42, 0.49;
overweight 9.41, 0.49;
obese 9.47, 0.50)
Motor coordination (MABC; manual
dexterity, ball skills, balance)
( ): Balance; ( ): total motor
impairment (for girls, effect found
only among obese subgroup)
Abbreviations: BMI, Body mass index; BIS/BAS scales, Behavioral Inhibition System/Behavioral Activation System scales; COWAT, Controlled Oral Word
Association Test; ISAT, Illinois Standards Achievement Test; MABC, Movement Assessment Battery for Children Test; WISC-R, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for
Children—Revised; WAIS-III, Wechsler Abbreviated Intelligence Scale-III; WCST, Wisconsin Card Sort Test; WRAML, Wide Range Assessment of Learning and
Memory; WRAT, Wide Range Achievement Test (R, Revised, 3, 3rd edition, 4, 4th edition). ø indicates null findings. ( ) indicates inverse correlation between
weight and area of cognitive functioning. ( þ ) indicates positive correlation between weight and area of cognitive functioning.
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
5
& 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13
Table 3. Studies examining the neurocognitive correlates of obesity-related behaviors in children and adolescents
Authors Population N Age range
(mean, s.d.)
Areas of cognitive functioning
assessed (measures)
Findings (abbreviated)
Adsiz et al.
74
Children 60 11–12 years Attention (Bourdon Attention Test) ( þ ): Physical activity and attention
Best
70
Children 33 6–10 years
(8.1, 1.3)
Executive function (modified flanker
task)
( þ ): Physical activity and executive
function
Burgi et al.
77
Children 217 4–6 years
(5.2, 0.6)
Motor skills (agility obstacle course,
balance beam)
ø: Physical activity and agility/
balance, accounting for body fat
Castelli et al.
71
Children 59 (8.79, .54) Verbal and nonverbal intelligence
(Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test);
reading, spelling, arithmetic (Wide
Range Achievement Test);
interference (Stroop), Trail Making
Tests
( þ ): Heart rate and high demand
cognitive tasks
Davis et al.
72
Children 171 7–11 years
(9.3, 1.0)
Cognitive functioning (Cognitive
Assessment System), academic
achievement (Woodcock-Johnson
Tests of Achievement III)
( þ ): Physical activity and planning;
( þ ): high-level physical activity and
math scores; ø: physical activity and
attention, simultaneous processes,
successive processes, math/reading
achievement
Edwards et al.
79
Children 800 11–13 years
(11.76)
Measures of Academic Progress
(MAP) standardized tests
( ): Television watching and math/
reading test scores; ( þ ): physical
activity and math/reading test
scores; ( þ ): physical performance
and math test scores
Hartmann et al.
37
Children and
adolescents
90 10–14 years
(LOC: 12.01,
1.28; Control:
12.11, 1.52)
Impulsivity (Barratt Impulsiveness
Scale for Adolescents, German
version)
ø: LOC eating and impulsivity
Hume et al.
78
Children 248 9–12 years Object-control skills, locomotor
skills, fundamental movement skills
ø: Physical activity, weight, motor
skills
Kantomaa et al.
59
Children 8061 8 and 16 years Parent and child self-report of
motor function and physical activity
( þ ): Motor function and physical
activity
Maayan et al.
17
Adolescents,
obese and
lean
91 14–21 years
(obese—17.5,
1.6; lean—17.3,
1.6)
Three Factor Eating Questionnaire;
Attention (Trail Making Test Part A);
Cognitive Flexibility (Trail Making
Test Part B); verbal fluency (COWAT),
response inhibition (Stroop Task),
Attention/Concentration Index
(WRAML) and Working Memory
Index (WRAML)
( ): Disordered eating and
inhibition
Morrison et al.
75
Children 498 6–8 years Motor performance (Koordinations
Test fu¨ r Kinder, throwing accuracy
Test)
( þ ): Physical activity and motor
skills; ( ): greater body fat/lower
physical activity and motor skills
Reilly et al.
76
Children 545 (4.2, 0.2) Movement skills ( þ ): Physical activity and motor
skills
Riggs et al.
10
Children (4th
graders)
184 (9.38, 0.61) Emotional control, inhibitory
control, working memory, and
organization of materials
(Behavioral Rating Inventory of
Executive Function, Self-Report)
( þ ): Current and future fruit/
vegetable intake and executive
functioning; ø: current physical
activity and executive functioning;
( þ ): future physical activity and
executive functioning; ( ): snack
intake and executive functioning; ø:
future snack intake and executive
functioning
Riggs et al.
11
Children (4th
graders)
997 (9.26, 0.48) Emotional control, inhibitory
control, working memory, and
organization of materials
(Behavioral Rating Inventory of
Executive Function, Self-Report)
( ): Sedentary behavior and
executive functioning; ( ):
high-fat/high-sugar snack intake
and executive functioning
Riggs et al.
12
Children (4th
graders)
1587 9.3 Emotional control, inhibitory
control, working memory, and
organization of materials
(Behavioral Rating Inventory of
Executive Function, Self-Report)
( ): High-calorie snack food intake
and executive functioning; ( ):
sedentary behavior and executive
functioning; ( þ ): fruit/vegetable
intake and executive functioning;
( þ ): physical activity and executive
functioning
Tomporowski et al.
73
Children,
overweight
69 7–11 years
(9.2, 1.2)
Switch Task ø: Physical activity and task-
switching performance
Abbreviations: COWAT, Controlled Oral Word Associati on Test; LOC, loss of control; WRAML, Wide Range Assessment of Learning and Memory. ø indicates null
findings. ( ) indicates inverse correlation between obesity-related behavior and area of cognitive functioning. ( þ ) indicates positive correlation between
obesity-related behavior and area of cognitive functioning.
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
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International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13 & 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited
Executive functioning
General executive function. Overweight children have been found
to have poorer executive control than healthy weight children,
23
and obese children have twice the rate of executive dysfunction as
the normative population.
24
In an intervention for overweight and
obese adolescents, improvements in executive function skill were
related to weight loss,
25
suggesting that executive function can
improve and have positive implications for reducing weight.
Inhibition. Numerous studies supported a negative correlation
between weight and inhibition, from preschool age to adoles-
cence.
17,23,26–28
Children who were the least effective in inhibiting
responses on the Stop Task lost less weight in the treatment
program.
13
Obese adolescents (BMI 499%) had decreased
performance on tests of attention compared with normative
data.
29
Overweight children had more difficulty with inhibition
and displayed less effective inhibition strategies (for example,
looking at and touching the reward) than healthy weight children,
more so for food than non-food cues.
30,31
Poor self-regulation skills
(both behavioral and emotional) in toddlers at age two were
predictive of increased risk for being overweight or obese at age
five.
32
Only one study failed to show a difference between obese
and overweight children on response inhibition.
33
It is possible that
this 1983 study used a laboratory paradigm (a free-access to food
task) to measure inhibition that was remarkably different from the
more recent studies that used cognitive tasks (such as the Stop Task
and Stroop Test) as measures of inhibition.
Impulsivity. Four studies supported a positive association
between impulsivity and weight, whereas the rest of the studies
found no relationship or an opposite effect. In treatment programs
for weight loss, impulsivity was positively associated with being
more overweight
13
at baseline and losing less weight after
treatment.
34–36
Contrarily, no difference was found between
overweight and healthy weight children and adolescents on
impulsivity scores (based on self-report personality measures).
27,37
An unexpected effect was also shown in a study with adolescents,
such that higher impulsivity was associated with greater weight
loss in a behavioral weight loss program.
38
Of note, it is possible
that the results from these studies varied by the type of measure
used. These inconsistent findings may be related to the design of
assessment measures (laboratory paradigms versus self-report
personality measures), developmental age (children versus
adolescents) or population characteristics (treatment versus non-
treatment seeking).
Mental flexibility and set-shifting. Evidence supports an inverse
association between overweight or obese status and performance
on mental flexibility, set-shifting, and verbal fluency in children
and adolescents.
17,27,36,39
Obese adolescents had lower
performance compared with normative data on tests of mental
flexibility.
29
However, one study found that BMI did not relate to
set-shifting performance in children and adolescents,
21
and no
differences were found between obese and healthy weight boys
on tests of verbal fluency.
39
Planning, decision-making, delayed gratification, sensitivity to reward and
reasoning
. Obese children had more difficulty than healthy
weight children with delay of gratification, both for food
rewards,
40
general rewards (both edible and non-edible),
41
and
non-food rewards.
42
Upon examining the ability to delay
gratification longitudinally, children who demonstrated low
delay of gratification and low self-control at age 3 had
significantly more rapid gains in BMI from age 3–12 compared
with children who had high delay of gratification and self-
control.
43
Similarly, children who failed the ability to delay
gratification task at age 4 were 1.3 times more likely to be
overweight at age 11, although the strength of the relationship
was diminished upon accounting for maternal weight.
44
In the
context of weight loss treatment, overweight children who
showed a higher level of food reinforcement and greater delay
discounting of food rewards lost less weight compared with
children who did not.
45
In comparison, two studies found
that weight was unrelated to choices made during delay of
gratification tasks for both food and non-food rewards.
31,46
In
addition, two studies showed no differences between healthy and
overweight youth on tests of planning, reasoning, self-regulation
and personality measures that assessed sensitivity to reward.
27,39
Evidence from these studies suggests a weak association between
obesity and planning, decision-making and reasoning. It is
possible that these higher level executive functions are less well
developed in children and adolescents in general (regardless of
weight status), thus clarifying the lack of an association. However,
further replication of these studies is needed.
Across this broad area of executive functioning, more consistent
evidence regarding an inverse relationship between executive
functioning and weight was found in the areas of general
executive functioning, inhibition, delayed gratification, mental
flexibility, and set-shifting. Mixed results were found with
impulsivity and sensitivity to reward, whereas little evidence was
found with planning, decision-making, and reasoning.
Attention. All but three studies demonstrated an inverse relation-
ship between attention and obesity. Obese boys and adolescents
performed lower on tests of attention and concentration than
their healthy weight counterparts.
17,39
Another study of obese
adolescents demonstrated deficits in attention compared with
normative data.
29
One study found that among overweight
children, there was attentional interference in regards to
food words;
47
however, a similar subsequent study found no
differences between overweight and healthy weight children on
attentional interference of food words.
48
Children with greater
percent body fat scored worse on a test of attention.
18
Higher
parent ratings of cognitive problems and inattention were
reported among children with greater BMI z-scores, WC, and
abdominal fat.
18
Teacher-reported cognitive problems and
inattention were positively correlated with WC.
18
Greater
inattention predicted less short- and long-term weight loss for
children and adolescents in weight-loss treatment.
49,50
On the
contrary, Gunstad et al.
21
found no relationship between BMI and
digit span backward performance in children and adolescents,
whereas Krombholz
22
also found no relationship among weight
and concentration ability in a sample of kindergarteners.
Learning and memory. Half of the studies on learning and
memory in children found a significant relationship with obesity,
whereas the other half did not. One study found that overweight
children had selective processing of high caloric food cues, such
that they recalled more food words than control words in a free-
recall memory task, but recalled an equal number of control words
compared with their healthy weight counterparts.
48
Parents of
obese Swedish children reported the presence of learning and
memory problems at approximately three times the expected rate
according to norms adjusted for both age and gender.
24
Working
memory was found to be worse in obese adolescents than healthy
weight adolescents.
17
However, various studies have reported no
relationship between BMI, working memory, and verbal recall
performance in children and adolescents.
21,27,39
Language. Results from existing studies on language and obesity
are mixed. Language problems were present in obese children in
Sweden at approximately three times the rate of the normative
population, based on parent report.
24
Obese children were found
to have lower reading skills compared with non-obese age and
sex-matched controls.
47
However, in some studies with young
children and adolescents, there was no relationship among
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
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& 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13
BMI, verbal fluency, and verbal ability.
21,22
Also, Mond et al.
20
found no differences between obese and non-obese 4-to-8
year-old children in different domains of speech (for example,
pronunciation, grammar and rhythm of speech). Perhaps
differences were not detected in these latter two studies owing
to the younger age range of the samples, who may still be
undergoing early stages of language development.
Visuo-spatial ability. The two studies available on obesity and
visuo-spatial ability suggest an inverse correlation. In a group of
children and adolescents with BMI greater than the fifth
percentile, overweight or at-risk-of-overweight children performed
worse than healthy weight children on a measure of nonverbal
reasoning and visuo-spatial construction.
16
Overweight children in
Germany had impaired performances on mental rotation tasks
compared with healthy weight children.
51
Motor skill. Studies examining motor skill overwhelming support
a connection with obesity. In cross-sectional studies, children and
adolescents who were overweight or obese performed much
lower on a fundamental movement skill mastery test, as well as in
tasks involving coordination, balance, strength, running
speed, agility, fine and gross motor skills, ball skills, locomotor
skills, and object-control than non-overweight peers.
20,22,51–60
Overweight and obese children performed significantly worse on
motor coordination tasks than healthy weight children, with an
increasing strength of association between 6 and 11 years of age,
and a decreasing strength of relationship through 14 years of
age.
61
Parent-reported motor skill problems in obese children and
adolescents in Sweden were five times the expected rate based on
age and gender adjusted population norms.
24
Contrary to the
above findings, a few studies found no association between
weight/BMI on performance tests of manual dexterity and finger
tapping.
21,22,62
A few studies provide longitudinal data describing the
association between obesity and motor skill. In a 2-year
longitudinal study, overweight and obese children had lower
motor coordination at baseline and follow-up; strikingly,
non-overweight children showed even greater increases
in scores over time compared with overweight and obese
children, indicating the impact of weight on motor coordination
progression.
63
A significant improvement in gross motor
coordination was demonstrated in overweight and obese
children after participating in a 4-month residential weight-loss
treatment program, even though the overweight and obese
children had poorer performance than healthy weight children at
baseline.
64
Better psychomotor coordination during childhood
predicted a lower likelihood of obesity during adulthood.
19
These
studies suggest that although overweight and obese children
have poorer motor skills at baseline, these skills can improve over
time, with intervention, and subsequently lead to decreased
likelihood of obesity later in life.
Academic achievement. Research that examined academic
achievement in the context of weight generally substantiates an
inverse relationship between obesity and academic achievement.
In public school children, there was a negative correlation
between BMI and total academic achievement, mathematics
achievement, and reading achievement.
65
BMI and fat mass were
negatively correlated with WRAT-3 test scores.
28
BMI z-score, WC,
and body-fat measures were negatively correlated with math and
reading scores among a sample that only included overweight
children.
18
Both boys and girls classified as ‘overweight’ or ‘always
overweight’ had lower baseline reading and math test scores in
kindergarten compared with their peers that were ‘never
overweight’.
66
Longitudinally, an increase from non-overweight
to overweight status from kindergarten to third grade was
associated with a decline in standardized reading and math test
scores for girls only.
66
However, there was no relationship
between obesity and academic achievement in a group of 6–12
year-old Portuguese students, after accounting for socioeconomic
status.
67
One study with fourth grade, predominantly African
American children found no relationship between BMI and scores
on academic achievement tests.
68
In addition, a large longitudinal
study of fourth to ninth graders found that BMI was unrelated to
academic achievement scores on math and language arts
standardized state-wide tests over a 4-year period.
69
Part II: neurocognitive functioning and obesity-related behaviors
Executive functioning. Several studies have found an association
between poorer executive functioning and behaviors that
promote weight gain. Lower self-reported executive cognitive
function in fourth grade children was associated with high-calorie
snack food consumption, consumption of high-fat and high-sugar
snack foods and sedentary behavior.
11,12
Executive cognitive
function was positively correlated with fruit and vegetable intake
and physical activity, and positively correlated with high-calorie
snack food intake and sedentary behavior.
10,12,70
Poorer inhibition
was associated with greater disinhibited eating.
17
Increases
in intensive aerobic physical activity predicted improvements in
inhibition, visual attention and processing speed, set-shifting and
planning.
71,72
Only one study did not observe a relationship
between moderately intense physical activity and task-switching
performance.
73
It is conceivable that children and adolescents
with deficits in executive functioning may be more likely to
engage in obesity-related behaviors, although some aspects of
executive functioning may have a weaker relationship with weight
status.
Attention. Only one study has examined the link between
attention and obesity-related behaviors. At the end of a 12-week
volleyball and gymnastics intervention program, participating
children had 83% higher attention levels than children who did
not follow a physical activity program.
74
The data from this single
study suggest a positive relationship between attention and
physical activity.
Motor skill. A variety of studies have described the link between
obesity-related behaviors, specifically physical activity and motor
skill. A study among Danish children found that physical activity
was positively correlated with motor performance but not percent
body fat.
75
This study also found that children with higher percent
body fat and low physical activity scored worse on motor
performance than children with lower percent body fat and
higher physical activity.
75
Preschoolers randomized to a physical
activity intervention program performed significantly better on
movement skills tests than a control sample of kids not in the
program at 6-month follow-up.
76
Children who had poorer motor
function at age 8 were more likely to have lower levels of physical
activity at age 16.
59
In examining only the subgroup of children
designating as having a high percent body fat, motor performance
was improved in children who reported greater physical activity
compared with those that did not.
75
However, after accounting for
percent body fat, the relationship between physical activity and
motor coordination diminished at baseline and 9 months later.
77
Another study found no interaction among weight status, physical
activity and fundamental movement skills.
78
In general, the
majority of these studies indicate a positive association between
physical activity and motor skill.
Academic achievement. Higher math and reading test scores
have also been associated with more vigorous physical activity
and better physical activity performance.
79
Children participating
in a high physical activity exercise program scored higher on math
achievement tests compared with children in a low physical
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
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International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13 & 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited
activity program; however, this study did not find a difference in
math scores among children engaged in physical activity and
those who were not.
72
Greater television viewing time (sedentary
activity) was also related to lower math and reading test scores.
79
To date, no studies have investigated the association between
obesity-related behaviors and general cognitive functioning,
learning and memory, language, and visuo-spatial ability.
DISCUSSION
Summary
Overall, obesity in youth is associated with poorer cognitive
functioning as measured by neurocognitive tasks and self-report
measures. This review showed that there is stronger and more
consistent evidence supporting a relationship between obesity
and deficits in the areas of executive functioning (22 out of 30
studies), attention (7 out of 10 studies), visuo-spatial skills (2 out of
2 studies), and motor skills (17 out of 20 studies). Findings were
mixed in the areas of general cognitive functioning (4 out of 7
studies), learning and memory (3 out of 6 studies), language (2 out
of 5 studies), and academic achievement (4 out of 7 studies).
Obesity-related behaviors such as increased intake, disinhibited
eating, sedentary activity, and lower physical activity are generally
related to greater executive dysfunction, poorer motor skill, and
lower academic achievement.
Although the pattern of findings overall indicates an inverse
relationship between BMI and neurocognitive performance,
several studies reported data that showed a lack of association.
For example, across multiple areas of neurocognitive functioning
Gunstad et al.
21
found no relationship between cognitive
performance and BMI in healthy children and adolescents.
As suggested by the authors, this lack of association may be
due to differences in study methodology, pathophysiological
processes such as altered insulin regulation influencing cognitive
functioning and the possibility that developmentally, aspects of
cognitive functioning, such as self-regulation, may be more
relevant to adults than children. Variations in results may also
be related to the type of test administered (for example, self-
report measures vs parent-report measures, questionnaires vs
neuropsychology tests vs laboratory tasks), differences between
studies on which possible confounding factors were controlled for
(for example, physical activity, age, gender, ethnicity, health
behaviors and comorbidity) and differences in the cut-off points
for categorizing healthy weight, overweight or variations in the
measures for obesity (for example, BMI vs adiposity vs waist-hip
ratio). In addition, studies may not have used standard definitions
or measures of impairment,
20
limiting the validity and
generalizability of the findings. Furthermore, only certain areas
of executive functioning (for example, inhibition and delayed
gratification) have stronger support for a relationship with
overweight. Other areas (for example, decision-making and
planning) were less consistently associated with overweight,
27
suggesting that not all areas of executive functioning are related
to weight through the same mechanisms. From a developmental
perspective, differences in neurocognitive functioning may
interact with the stages of brain development. For example,
differences in some areas of executive functioning may not be
detectable at a young age (for example, preschool or kindergarten
age children) because the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is less well
developed. Another possibility is that the relationship between
weight/BMI and neurocognitive functioning is non-linear, or that a
threshold exists at which a certain BMI percentile puts an
individual at significantly higher risk of poorer neurocognitive
functioning. These factors were not directly examined in the
studies reviewed but could potentially explain the null findings.
The overall conclusion obtained from the review of the existing
research is that although a general sense of the association
between obesity and neurocognitive functioning has emerged,
this field of research is still in its infancy. The current review
provides a more in depth exploration of the role of neurobiology
and neurocognitive functioning on childhood obesity and obesity-
related behaviors; we expanded upon a previously published
review paper on cognitive functioning and obesity across the
lifespan (see Smith et al.
80
) and incorporated obesity-related
behaviors. One limitation of this review is that we did not analyze
the effect sizes of the associations. However, the large degree of
variability between the different neuropsychological assessments
for various areas of neurocognitive functioning would likely make
it difficult to conduct a thorough meta-analysis. Another limitation
is that only articles published in English were included, thus our
findings did not include studies written in other languages. This
review would have also been strengthened by the inclusion of
imaging studies with children.
In some ways, this review revealed more questions than answers
to the obesity-cognitive function relationship as there are still many
gaps in the literature that need to be addressed. Although the
majority of articles in this review fall under the executive
functioning and motor skills category, literature is scarce in areas
of general cognitive functioning, language, learning and memory,
and visuo-spatial skills. Moreover, most of the studies involving
obesity-related behaviors only examined the link with areas of
executive functioning. It is important to look beyond BMI or weight
as a correlate of neurocognitive functioning. For example, it was
physical fitness, not BMI, which differentiated a large sample of
students on academic achievement scores.
69
More research is
needed to examine whether there is a link between other aspects of
neurocognitive abilities and behaviors that promote weight gain.
Below are suggested questions for future studies
Is there a causal relationship between neurocognitive functioning and
obesity?
The majority of the studies were cross-sectional and only
a few longitudinal studies with child and adolescent samples were
available. Some show improvements in academic achievement,
motor skills, and general cognitive functioning over time with
weight loss.
19,64
Participations in weight loss and physical activity
programs have shown neurocognitive improvements in kids over
time.
13,38,64,65,72
Overweight children were found to improve less
over time than non-overweight peers on motor skills.
63
Other
studies suggest that neurocognitive performance might have
some predictive validity in future weight status. Children with
lower delay of gratification ability at 4 years old were more likely
to become overweight at 11 years.
44
Higher childhood verbal and
nonverbal IQ and psychomotor coordination were correlated with
a decreased likelihood of obesity in adulthood, B20 years later.
19
Early onset obesity was associated with smaller cerebellar volumes
compared with healthy sibling controls.
81
Therefore, it is possible
that early childhood obesity may affect and/or alter brain
development. Although there is some evidence that supports
both directions of the relationship, more prospective longitudinal
studies and studies controlling for confounding variables (for
example, age and medical conditions impacting cognitive
functioning) are needed to describe the directionality of the
relationship.
Does the relationship between neurocognitive functioning and obesity
change depend on the age of the child, given that many executive
functioning abilities are not fully developed pre adulthood? It is
important to examine this relationship in the context
of development, given brain plasticity during childhood.
For example, the strength of association between overweight/
obesity and motor coordination skills was greater in children than
adolescents, possibly emphasizing the role of development and
neuroplasticity.
61
Neurocognitive interventions may potentially be
more effective during some developmental stages than others.
For instance, interventions targeting improvement of motor and
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
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& 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13
visuo-spatial skills may be best introduced during early childhood,
given that motor and sensory areas of the brain tend to develop
first.
82,83
On the other hand, executive functioning training may be
most effective during adolescence, when gray matter volume
peaks, the PFC begins to develop and synaptic pruning
begins.
84,85
Even within certain developmental age groups, there
could be great variation owing to children developing at different
rates. More longitudinal research is needed to further examine
whether the relationship between obesity and neurocognitive
functioning changes across the lifespan.
How ‘food-specific’ should instruments be to best describe the relationship
between obesity and neurocognitive functioning? Compared with
healthy weight children, obese children showed greater difficulty
with delay of gratification and inhibition for food incentives or
cues only.
30,40
Overweight and obese children had less preference
for non-food items, nutritious foods and non-food-related
activities,
40
and had more memory recall of food words than
non-food words
48
than healthy weight children. Yet, some
research suggests that delay of gratification was not dependent
on whether or not the reward was food-related.
41,46
Few other
studies have systematically compared performance on food-
related tasks to non-food-related tasks. Thus, it would help for
future studies to clarify whether obese individuals have general
neurocognitive difficulties or whether the deficits are present
specifically in the context of food.
What are the mediators and moderators of the relationship between
neurocognitive functioning and obesity? Some of the studies
presented in this review have suggested age, gender, socio-
economic status and ethnicity as moderators. Findings from two
studies suggested that socioeconomic status, not BMI, is associated
with academic achievement.
67,68
Among overweight children, those
with a lower socioeconomic status had lower motor skill functioning
than children with a higher socioeconomic status.
22
Depression was
a mediating factor between obesity and verbal mental exibility and
inhibition capacity.
86
Impulsivity may be associated with attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder, which may ultimately contribute to
overeating or higher food intake and subsequently, obesity.
26,87
Binge eating may also be another mediator between neurocognitive
functioning and obesity in children.
88
Obesity and neurocognitive functioning are also associated with
many direct and indirect biological comorbidities. For example,
metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular condition attenuated some
correlations between neurocognitive functioning and obesity in
adults.
89
In obese subjects, serum-free fatty acid concentration had a
positive relationship with white matter volume in the left temporal
and occipital lobes. This suggests that fatty acid excess could have a
negative influence on the metabolism of lipids in the brain that may
then affect white matter volume.
90
Obesity is often comorbid with
cardiovascular disease, which has shown to impact cognitive
functioning; waist-hip ratio and WC interacts with hypertension in
their association with executive function, motor speed and manual
dexterity later in life.
91
Obesity has also been found to be associated
with leptin resistance,
92
metabolic syndrome,
93
sleep apnea
94
and
inflammation related to insulin resistance.
95
There is evidence
that insulin exerts effects on neural networks,
96
and that
insulin-resistance may lead to alterations in cerebrovascular
reactivity, potentially mediated by impaired vascular reactivity,
inflammation, oxidative stress and/or other factors.
97
Underlying brain mechanisms, such as poor executive control in
regulating response to reward, can also influence weight gain and
obesity.
98,99
Imaging studies reflect differences between obese and
non-obese children and adolescents in brain functioning. Compared
with lean adolescents, obese adolescents are likely to have greater
anticipation of food reward (in the gustatory cortex and
somatosensory brain regions) but experience less actual reward,
possibly owing to the decreased neural activation in the dorsal
striatum (reward processing brain region), thus increasing the
likelihood of overeating and weight gain.
14,100
Studies have
demonstrated that obese children display higher activation of
dorsolateral PFC and occipital front cortex than healthy weight
children in response to food images during both hunger and satiety,
which is hypothesized to be associated with increased inhibitory
activation in the obese group.
14,101
Thus, obese children may require
more effort or control to produce behavioral restraint when
confronted with food cues.
101
Obese children also failed to show
significant post meal reduction of activation in the prefrontal, limbic
and ventral striatum (reward processing) region.
102
These studies
may support an aberrant neurocircuitry across development among
youth at risk for obesity as well as those who are currently obese.
Understanding the connection between neurobiology and
obesity may be particularly important for children. It is possible
that immature brain processes contribute to an increased risk for
developing childhood obesity. During normal brain development,
regions that serve primary functions, such as motor and sensory
systems, mature earliest; higher-order association areas, which
integrate these primary functions, mature later.
83
The last area to
develop is the PFC, which is vital to the inhibition of impulsive
responses and to decision making based on environmental stimuli.
85
The PFC receives input from a variety of sources in order to
determine the value of a potential reward and to either mobilize the
necessary behavioral action or inhibitory response.
103
Decision
making in children is affected by PFC and corresponding inhibitory
control processes that are not yet fully developed.
104
A growing body of literature suggests a changing balance
between the earlier-developing limbic system and the later-
developing frontal/cognitive systems.
105
Without the nece ssary
inhibitory processes to aid in decision-making, children and
adolescents may be particularly susceptible to making poor health
behavior choices, which may be particularly pronounced
when evaluating food cues in an obesiogenic environment.
106
The
research on the link between neurobiological factors and obesity
underscore the possibility that obese children may have more
abnormalities in neurocognitive functioning. Such factors could
potentially impact food intake and weight and may explain why
neurocognitive deficits may be more common in children who are
obese.
Thus, the type of food intake, physical activity, socio-
demographics, health comorbidities and underlying brain
mechanisms may mediate or moderate the relationship between
neurocognitive functioning and obesity.
In conclusion, data generally show that obesity is negatively
linked to various aspects of neurocognitive functioning, such as
executive functioning, attention, visuo-spatial skills and motor skills.
The existing literature is mixed on the effects among obesity and
general cognitive functioning, learning and memory, language and
academic achievement. Most of the literature suggests that greater
executive dysfunction is associated with obesity-related behaviors,
such as increased food intake, disinhibited eating and less physical
activity.
The findings from the research presented could be beneficial
in the design and implementation of treatments that
target neurocognitive deficits that impact obesity and obesity-
related behaviors. Progress in this area has been demon-
strated in other areas of disorders. For example, in a study
with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,
working memory training w as shown to improve working
memory and inhibition and reduce inattentiveness
symptoms.
107
A web-based smoking cessation program
training contingency management for adolescents showed a n
increase in abstin ence.
108
Some evidence suggests that
executive functioning training for obese children can improve
working memory and inhibition and c an h elp w ith weight-los s
maintenance.
109
In addition, programs and interventions
focusing on increasing physical activity or decreasing weight
Neurocognition and pediatric obesity
J Liang et al
10
International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13 & 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited
may have an essenti al role. For example, evidence suggesting
that participation in exercise programs may improve neuro-
cognitive functioning is encouraging.
71,72
Perhaps targeting
physical fitness abilities in youth, alone or in combination with
weight-loss, may have a beneficial impact on neurocognitive
functioning. This research suggests that childhood and
adolescence may represent an opportune time during develop-
ment to influen ce neurocognitive abilities to augment the
success of current weight-loss treatments.
It is likely that neurocognitive functioning may have multiple and
indirect pathways that lead to obesity in youth. Although a general
pattern has emerged between neurocognitive functioning and
obesity from existing evidence, less is known about exactly how and
why they are connected. Researchers have proposed conceptual
frameworks that could more thoroughly describe the link between
obesity and neurocognitive function, such as obesity having an
acute effect on neurocognitive function; obesity influencing other
chronic conditions which then limit neurocognitive function over
time; a vulnerability of poor neurocognitive function that leads
to greater risk of obesity; or that higher order neurophysiological
processes impact both the development of obesity and
neurocognitive dysfunction.
21
It is not yet clear which of these
frameworks, if any, best describes how neurocognitive function
and obesity and obesity-related behaviors are associated in children
and adolescents. Continuing research to further expand our
understanding of these relationships may be an integral com-
ponent to the development of more effective interventions to target
pediatric obesity. Particularly for those children who have not been
successful in losing weight or maintaining weight loss after current
standard treatments, targeting neurocognitive impairments in
future inventions may improve their chances of having current
and long-term weight-loss success.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Health
(NIH DK094475 and NIH DK075861) to Kerri Boutelle (PI). We wou ld like to
acknowledge Amanda Bischoff-Grethe, PhD, (Assistant Adjunct Professor,
Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego) for her contributions
to the literature review on neurobiology and obesity in children. We also thank the
UCSD CHEAR (Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research) lab for their support
and feedback in the writing of this manuscript.
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& 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited International Journal of Obesity (2013) 1 13
... Several studies investigating the correlation between lower EF and higher BMI have focused mainly on school-age children, adolescents, and adults [15][16][17][18]. Most of the key results from these studies are found to be a small to medium effect size of the association. ...
... For the overall EF, this study was in line with previous studies that showed lower EF was significantly associated with weight excess [24,40,41]. Evidence shows that executive dysfunction can cause excess weight through unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as increased high-calorie intake, decreased fruit/vegetable consumption, less physical activity, and more sedentary behaviors [17]. However, when we categorized excess weight into overweight and obesity separately, a significant association remained only in overweight. ...
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The association between executive function and excess weight is becoming increasingly evident. However, the results of previous studies are still inconclusive, and there is a lack of evidence in early childhood. This study aims to examine the association between executive function, in terms of overall and subscales of executive function (e.g., inhibition, working memory, and shifting), and weight excess in preschoolers. A population-based cross-sectional study was conducted on children aged 2-5 years of age from public and private schools in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Participants' weights and heights were measured and classified into three weight status groups (i.e., children with normal weight, overweight, and obesity groups). Executive function was assessed using the parent-report Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function-Preschool (BRIEF-P). Multivariable polynomial regression was performed to analyze the association between executive function and weight status. A total of 1,181 children were included in the study. After adjusting for confounders, impaired overall executive function significantly increased the probability of being overweight (odds ratio [OR] = 2.47; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.33 to 4.56). A similar trend of association was also found between impaired inhibition and overweight status (OR = 2.33; 95%CI 1.11 to 4.90). Furthermore, poor working memory was associated with both overweight and obesity (OR = 1.87; 95%CI 1.09 to 3.20 and OR = 1.74; 95%CI 1.09 to 2.78, respectively). Our data suggest that deficits in executive function, particularly inhibition and working memory, are associated with weight excess in preschoolers. Early promotion of executive function may be needed at this developmental age to prevent unhealthy weight status.
... 11 This near null association could be due to cognitive development processes wherein pubertal prefrontal cortex development is particularly important for the development of executive function. 9,32 The ndings suggesting a slightly more consistent negative association for students who became overweight/obese during follow up aligns with prior studies. One large national U.S. cohort study found that among girls, those that moved from nonoverweight to overweight status during kindergarten to third grade experienced a decline in standardized reading and math test scores 33 . ...
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Background/Objectives. Childhood overweight and obesity have a well-established negative impact on children’s health. Overweight and obesity might also negatively impact children’s academic performance, but existing literature on this association is inconclusive. This study uses a longitudinal design in a large, diverse elementary school sample to rigorously test the association between longitudinal weight status and academic achievement. Analyses also investigate modification by sex, race/ethnicity, and cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). Subjects/Methods. In a large suburban school district in the United States, 4 936 Grade 4 students were recruited. Demographic, course grade, and standardized test data were collected from school records for Grades 3 to 5, and body mass index (BMI) and CRF were assessed each year. Students wore accelerometers during the school day for up to 15 days across three semesters (Grade 4 Fall and Spring, Grade 5 Fall) to objectively measure physical activity. Multiple imputation addressed missing data and multilevel analyses controlled for student demographics and clustering within schools. Results. Unadjusted multilevel models found small negative associations for students who were persistently obese with course grades and standardized test scores, but these associations largely disappeared when controlling for demographic characteristics. Residual associations for math and writing course grades were attenuated when controlling for CRF, though some marginal negative associations for math and writing remained for students who became obese during follow up. There was no evidence of modification by sex or race/ethnicity. Conclusions Results suggest very small associations between obesity status and academic achievement that were largely explained by CRF. These findings support growing evidence that increasing CRF is more important than losing weight for improving children’s cognition and academic achievement.
... Obesity is typically associated with a cluster of metabolic conditions which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes (i.e., metabolic syndrome). Furthermore, there are increasing concerns about its impact on behavior and cognition (Liang et al., 2014;Morris et al., 2015;Romain et al., 2018;Spyridaki et al., 2016;Sutin et al., 2011;Vainik et al., 2019). While studies examining the effects of diet-induced obesity on behavior and cognition continue to emerge, they are often one-dimensional, focusing mainly on mean differences between individuals exposed to control and obesogenic diets. ...
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The obesity epidemic, largely driven by the accessibility of ultra‐processed high‐energy foods, is one of the most pressing public health challenges of the 21st century. Consequently, there is increasing concern about the impacts of diet‐induced obesity on behavior and cognition. While research on this matter continues, to date, no study has explicitly investigated the effect of obesogenic diet on variance and covariance (correlation) in behavioral traits. Here, we examined how an obesogenic versus control diet impacts means and (co‐)variances of traits associated with body condition, behavior, and cognition in a laboratory population of ~160 adult zebrafish (Danio rerio). Overall, an obesogenic diet increased variation in several zebrafish traits. Zebrafish on an obesogenic diet were significantly heavier and displayed higher body weight variability; fasting blood glucose levels were similar between control and treatment zebrafish. During behavioral assays, zebrafish on the obesogenic diet displayed more exploratory behavior and were less reactive to video stimuli with conspecifics during a personality test, but these significant differences were sex‐specific. Zebrafish on an obesogenic diet also displayed repeatable responses in aversive learning tests whereas control zebrafish did not, suggesting an obesogenic diet resulted in more consistent, yet impaired, behavioral responses. Where behavioral syndromes existed (inter‐class correlations between personality traits), they did not differ between obesogenic and control zebrafish groups. By integrating a multifaceted, holistic approach that incorporates components of (co‐)variances, future studies will greatly benefit by quantifying neglected dimensions of obesogenic diets on behavioral changes. We examined how an obesogenic versus control diet impacts means and (co‐)variances of traits associated with body condition, behavior, and cognition in a laboratory population of ~160 adult zebrafish (Danio rerio).
... Indeed, it is known that individual variation in EF is an important predictor of developmental outcome in for example weight status (Liang et al., 2014) or school performance (Mischel et al., 1989). This pivotal role of EF in human development has led to much theorizing about the concept, its neural underpinnings, its development, and its relationship with general cognitive ability (or, the g-factor). ...