Sui, S. X., Ridding, M. C., & Hordacre, B. (2020). Obesity is associated with reduced plasticity of the human motor cortex. Brain Sciences, 10(9), 579.
Article Review By: Mark J. Stern, Ph.D., Kristy Snyder Colling, Ph.D. and Robert Coben, Ph.D.
Article Link: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3425/10/9/579
Obesity poses significant risks of developing a myriad of medical complications. Research is now showing that obesity alone can increase the risk of reduced cognitive functioning and even dementia. Questions still remain as to how. Animal studies have shown obesity is associated with reduced total and cortical brain volume and changes to brain regions that are important for learning, such as the hippocampus, and stress management, such as the hypothalamus. Human studies have already shown that obesity is associated with more likelihood of developing age-related changes in the brain. More recently, obesity was also linked to lower levels of a protein involved in neuronal growth and synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity relates to the brain’s ability to become more efficient as something becomes more familiar, which is particularly important for learning and memory.
Just this year, researchers from the University of South Australia and Deakin University (Sui, Ridding, & Hordacre, 2020) published the first physiological study examining the potential link between obesity and reduced synaptic plasticity. The authors used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate the brains of a group of obese individuals and a group of matched healthy-weight individuals and compared their brain activity. The non-obese group exhibited increasingly more efficient brain functioning with each stimulation, indicative of healthy synaptic plasticity and learning. Whereas, the obese group showed little to no change in response to repeated stimulation, suggesting no increase in efficiency associated with synaptic plasticity. This is the first study to show physiological evidence that obesity is linked to impaired brain functioning with direct TMS technology. These findings have important implications regarding the neurological health and cognitive functioning for millions of individuals struggling with obesity.
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