Researchers link brain energy demand and weight gain in childhood


Anthropology Prof. Christopher Kuzawa co-wrote a paper about the connection between children’s brain energy demand and obesity risk.

Sophia Scanlan, Copy Chief

Everyone believes the more food you eat, the more weight you gain. But in early childhood, that’s not always the case. Around the age of 5, a lot of energy from food goes to the brain — and not the body.

Anthropology Prof. Christopher Kuzawa and a team of researchers found evidence to support that hypothesis five years ago. During early childhood, almost half of the body’s energy expenditure goes to brain development, explaining why body growth can be slow around that time.

This year, Kuzawa and Clancy Blair of New York University’s Medical School took the research a step further, proposing a connection between brain energy demand and weight gain. Their paper, “A hypothesis linking energy demand of the brain to obesity risk,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on June 17.

The professors explained that after early childhood — around that age of 5 — less energy goes to brain development and could instead go to weight gain.

However, different children have different levels of energy demand in the brain, and Kuzawa and Blair suggested that this variation could influence a child’s obesity risk.

“This is a huge hole in our understanding of energy expenditure,” Kuzawa said in a University news release. “A major aim of our paper is to bring attention to this gap in understanding and to encourage researchers to measure the brain’s energy use in future studies of child development, especially those focused on understanding weight gain and obesity risk.”

Kuzawa and Blair added in their paper that these future studies could lead to new educational strategies that increase brain energy demand later in childhood and thus help head off possible weight gain.

The researchers also examined early childhood programs that stimulate the brain with enrichment and found them beneficial since they “increased energy expenditure by the brain.”

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