A recent study suggests that large quantities of body fat could be associated with a worrying reduction in brain volume. How can obesity affect our brain and can it affect our cognitive functions?
MRI analysis on 12, 000 adults suggest that higher levels of body fat can lead to modifications in the brain structure. In particular, it can lead to a reduction in the amount of grey matter that plays a very important role in dealing with new information. The details of the study were published in the Radiology journal in April 2019.
“We found that having higher levels of fat distributed over the body is associated with smaller volumes of important structures of the brain, including grey matter structures that are located in the centre of the brain,” explains radiologist Ilona A. Dekkers from Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. These results are similar to another study published in the Neurology journal in January 2019 which also suggests that excessive abdominal fat can lead to brain reduction.
Differences for men and women
This new study, which focused on participants aged between 45 and 76, highlights differences between the volume of body fat and the volume of grey matter for both men and women. For men, a higher percentage of body fat is associated with a reduction in the volume of grey matter particularly in the thalamus and hippocampus areas of the brain (but not the amygdala). However for women, there is only a reduction in grey matter in the globus pallidus area of the brain which is involved in motricity.
Modifications in the structure of white matter were also observed. Although these modifications are present they are less evident than the alterations to grey matter. White matter is particularly responsible for spreading information to the nervous system. Although modifications have been observed, the consequences of these alterations remain unknown for the time being .
Although the results show a clear link between high levels of body fat and the reduction in the volume of grey matter, the researchers have examined no link with the decline in the participants cognitive function. For the moment this is simply a structural observation. Further research will be needed to evaluate the cognitive risks associated with this worrying observation. What is more if a person manages to lose weight is it possible to increase their grey matter volumes? This is another aspect of that researchers will need to look into.