Obesity Changes Brains in Adolescents | E-Counseling.com

Obesity Changes Brains in Adolescents

Maria Morioka, BSN, RN
December 16, 2019
teen obesity

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are 13.7 million children and adolescents who fit the criteria of obesity in the United States. Among 2-11-year-olds, over 30% are obese. For young people 12-19, 26% are obese. Obesity in children isn’t an issue about appearance; it’s an issue about health.

A common belief is that children outgrow most of their childhood health problems. “Baby fat” is a term used to describe excess weight during youth. The name implies that “baby fat” is fleeting and will not have any repercussions. 

A new study confirms that obesity may have a more significant impact on the young than previously thought, with lasting, lifelong complications.

Research on Obesity and Inflammation

Researchers at the Radiologic Society of America sought to study the damage caused by obesity and inflammation.  Obesity has been known to cause inflammation in the body, and primarily within the nervous system. This inflammatory response causes damage to specific parts of the brain. Researchers used diffuser tensor imaging (DTI) to observe the exact areas where inflammation altered the brain.

DTI results in 59 obese adolescents, and 61 healthy adolescents were reviewed for white matter damage in the brain. In the obese group, the white matter areas most altered were responsible for cognitive function, appetite regulation, and emotion control. No detrimental changes in white matter occurred in the healthy adolescents.

Leptin and Insulin

Also, the white matter pattern of damage matched the path of an inflammatory marker, leptin. Leptin is a hormone made by fat cells. Its significance lies in its task of regulating energy levels and fat stores. In some people, the brain does not recognize leptin. Leptin resistance, as it’s called, results in weight gain because the person is unable to sense satiety and overeats.

High levels of insulin, a hormone, was also present in the obese adolescents. Insulin is excreted by the pancreas to regulate blood sugar levels. Resistance to insulin can occur in obese individuals, causing high blood sugar. If left untreated, a lifetime of medications may be required for the body to obtain sufficient blood sugar levels.

The study illustrates the overall impact health has on brain function.  Researchers are looking to perform further studies on obesity and brain changes, and whether the altered brain areas can be reversible with weight loss.

The researchers also noted the destructive element of inflammation. Further research is necessary to understand how inflammation affects the brain and mental health.


In the end, allowing a young person to feel loved and secure regardless of their weight, is central to any healthy relationship with a child. Including a child in learning about health and fitness can instill positive habits early in life. Providing an adolescent with healthy selections, rather than managing their eating habits and activity, may provide them with the initiative to make good choices.

Although it’s essential to be understanding and sensitive to a young person’s self-image, obesity does need medical assistance for health reasons. Serious irreversible health and cognitive issues may result if left untreated. Consultation with a health professional may be necessary to assess whether dietary and exercise modifications are required.

Maria Morioka, BSN, RN

Maria Morioka, BSN, RN has been a Licensed Registered Nurse in the mental health field for nearly 15 years. Maria strongly believes in educating others about the importance of mental health.

More For You