Pediatrics

Structural connectivity and weight loss in children with obesity: a study of the “connectobese”

Abstract

Background

Previous studies suggest that obesity (OB) is associated with disrupted brain network organization; however, it remains unclear whether these differences already exist during childhood. Moreover, it should be investigated whether deviant network organization may be susceptible to treatment.

Methods

Here, we compared the structural connectomes of children with OB with age-matched healthy weight (HW) controls (aged 7–11 years). In addition, we examined the effect of a multidisciplinary treatment program, consisting of diet restriction, cognitive behavioral therapy, and physical activity for children with OB on brain network organization. After stringent quality assessment criteria, 40 (18 OB, 22 HW) data sets of the total sample of 51 participants (25 OB, 26 HW) were included in further analyses. For all participants, anthropometric measurements were administered twice, with a 5-month interval between pre- and post tests. Pre- and post T1- and diffusion-weighted imaging scans were also acquired and analyzed using a graph-theoretical approach and network-based statistics.

Results

Global network analyses revealed a significantly increased normalized clustering coefficient and small-worldness in children with OB compared with HW controls. In addition, regional analyses revealed increased betweenness centrality, reduced clustering coefficient, and increased structural network strength in children with OB, mainly in the motor cortex and reward network. Importantly, children with OB lost a considerable amount of their body mass after the treatment; however, no changes were observed in the organization of their brain networks.

Conclusion

This is the first study showing disrupted structural connectomes of children with OB, especially in the motor and reward network. These results provide new insights into the pathophysiology underlying childhood obesity. The treatment did result in a significant weight loss, which was however not associated with alterations in the brain networks. These findings call for larger samples to examine the impact of short-term and long-term weight loss (treatment) on children’s brain network organization.

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Acknowledgements

The study was funded by the Ph.D. fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) awarded to MJCMA [3F000714]. The authors are very grateful to all participants and their parents, the staff from the rehabilitation center “Zeepreventorium” (De Haan, Belgium), and the board of the participating schools.

Funding

This study was funded by the Ph.D. fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) awarded to MJCMA [3F000714].

Author information

Conception and design of the experiment: MJCMA, FJAD, ED’H, ML, and KC. Collection and processing of the data: MJCMA, LVA, MADB, and AZ. Interpretation of the results: MJCMA, MADB, FJAD, ED’H, ML, KC, and AZ. Drafting of the paper and critical revision: MJCMA, MADB, FJAD, ED’H, ML, KC, AZ, ADG, and LVA. All authors had final approval of the submitted and published version.

Correspondence to Mireille J. C. M. Augustijn.

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