With childhood obesity quickly becoming a serious health issue globally, eating healthy is one of the best habits we can develop, and becomes increasingly important as we age.
However, our relationship to food, especially foods high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates begins early in life and can be quite difficult to change once we develop unhealthy eating habits.
New research is looking into the role that “executive functions” (described below) play in breaking these unhealthy habits, and how cognitive training can benefit individuals with childhood obesity.
A team of researchers has developed a new scientific study based around the concept of using targeted cognitive training to improve executive functions in individuals with childhood obesity. The study will look into whether “executive function training in children with obesity can improve food choices, produce cognitive changes, as well as improve emotional state and quality of life.”
Prevention of childhood obesity, and by extension the related physical and mental health problems, should therefore be a priority for the scientific community.
The scientific literature shows that individuals with obesity often present cognitive deficits, especially in areas of executive functions. Luckily, due to the process of brain plasticity, cognitive abilities such as our executive functions can be improved with targeted training.
What Are Executive Functions?
Executive functions play a critical role in our ability to make difficult choices, especially choices related to the reward and pleasure centers in the brain. Executive Functions are the set of higher-level cognitive functions and mental skills that combine multiple cognitive abilities such as working memory, planning, shifting, inhibition, and more.
We rely heavily on these skills each and every day to help us manage our daily life, overcome obstacles, and adapt to new situations and environments. When our executive functions are not working to their full potential, we can find that it is difficult to stay focused, follow directions, handle emotions, or make difficult choices such as choosing to cook a healthy meal instead of ordering a pizza to be delivered.
Why Is This Childhood Obesity Study Important?
Childhood obesity ranks among the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.
We have seen an alarming increase in the rate of obesity, especially in individuals with lower socioeconomic status. Overweight and obese children are much more likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop noncommunicable diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age.
But childhood obesity affects more than only the physical health of the individual. It can also lead to serious long-term complications such as psychosocial and psychological problems (i.e., depression and low self-esteem).
Prevention of childhood obesity, and by extension the related physical and mental health problems, should therefore be a priority for the scientific community, especially those interested in public and individual health outcomes.
While various weight-loss programs in children have shown some success, the benefits of these programs are limited, to say the least, and tend to lose effectiveness over the long term.
The team behind the research is hoping to find more permanent solutions, stating their desire for “a better comprehension of vulnerability factors related to weight gain [to gain] valuable information for designing more effective treatments.”
How Will The Study Be Carried Out?
The team has designed a unique research intervention where study participants, aged 9 to 12 years, will be tracked by an endocrinologist who will assess the participants’ height, weight, blood pressure, and other factors relating to their weight and overall health. Participants will then be divided into control and experimental groups and assigned activity trackers to measure physical activity and sleep patterns during the training period.
Participants will be assigned one of three cognitive training programs.
The first group will be assigned a program that trains only working memory, the second will be assigned personalized Executive Function cognitive training from CogniFit. The final group, which will serve as the control, will be assigned non-adaptive training with a minimal cognitive component.
This childhood obesity study team hopes that “children with obesity undergoing the cognitive training program will perform better than active controls in cognitive measures, take better food-related decisions, and consequently, show changes in brain connectivity, emotional state, and QoL measures at the end of the intervention and during the follow-up at 12 months.”
We are looking forward to seeing the results of the research project once the team has been able to evaluate the “impact of executive functions training in BMI, food choice, and cognition in children with obesity as well as in their emotional state and QoL”.