Pre-frontal activity can be recipe for obesity

Special to Western NewsResearch by BrainsCAN postdoctoral fellows Cassandra Lowe and Amy Reichelt, along with Peter Hall of Waterloo University, suggest a link between obesity and the level of activity in a person’s prefrontal cortex. People with less activity in this brain region are more vulnerable to the lure of high-calorie foods rich in sugar and fats.

Finding it impossible to resist that craving for chocolate and potato chips? It may be all in your head ­– specifically in the part of your brain that controls self-regulation.

New Western research suggests there’s a link between obesity and the level of activity in a person’s prefrontal cortex. People with less activity in this brain region are more vulnerable to the lure of high-calorie foods rich in sugar and fats, says study lead author Cassandra Lowe, a BrainsCAN postdoctoral fellow.

In short, having lower pre-frontal activity can be a recipe for obesity. And, in what can become a loop of poor dietary decision-making, food over-consumption may then lead to changes in the prefrontal cortex that influence similar dietary decisions.

“It’s not just the case that obesity is causing these issues in the brain structure and function, but it is this reciprocal relationship – that differences in brain structure and function can cause obesity, that’s really important,” Lowe said. “Our review shows that if you have lower prefrontal activity, it can pre-dispose you to overeating, which in turn can lead to weight gain and obesity.”

Obesity neuroscience has primarily focused on reward pathways in different areas of the brain.

“Here we also want to show it’s a factor of these control processes,” she said.

The review, The Prefrontal Cortex and Obesity: A Health Neuroscience Perspective, is newly published in Trends in Cognitive NeuroScience. It is co-authored by BrainsCAN postdoctroal fellow Amy Reichelt and Peter Hall of Waterloo University.

The findings might well have significance in helping change how we view the role of exercise, which dieters sometimes view only as a way to offset caloric intake.

Because exercise also increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, it could also serve a vital role in helping the brain wrestle more successfully against impulses that could otherwise send us on a repeat visit to the junk-food aisle.

“We can do things to make our brains healthier. We can improve our activity levels and that can lead to dietary changes,” Lowe said.