Obesity and the Baby’s Brain

ByDr. Marshall

Obesity and the Baby’s Brain

This is the third time this week that another news outlet has reported a study that appeared recently in the Journal of Pediatrics (click to visit the website or click here to download the pdf of the article). The study was conducted at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Investigators measured the developmental outcomes of 4821 children born between 2008 and 2010. The children were tested at intervals starting at four months and ending at three years.

The investigators report that maternal obesity is correlated with fine motor development (how well we use the muscles in our hands and fingers); paternal obesity is associated with delays in personal-social activities (feeding themselves, playing with others, and dressing and undressing themselves); and children born to extremely obese couples had reduced performance on problem-solving tasks.

When I heard about this study, my first thought was that there are many other factors associated with being overweight that could have contributed to poorer developmental outcomes, including poor health, poverty, and reduced interaction with infants and toddlers. But the researchers controlled for these and other things.

The most intriguing (and frightening) thing about this study is that the authors believe that obesity somehow interferes with brain development sometime during the first or second trimester of pregnancy. We know that the brain and nervous system develop during the first trimester and that the brain is fully developed by the end of the second trimester. We know, too, that drugs, x-rays, smoking, and very poor nutrition during pregnancy can interfere with prenatal brain development.

What the researchers on this new study are suggesting is that the inflammation and hormones that regulated metabolism are higher in obese individuals and that the increased inflammation and hormones are interfering with fetal brain development.

I wanted to report this study for two reasons. First, because it suggests that, like cigarettes and alcohol, being obese may put your baby at risk for later developmental delay. Thus, if you and your partner are thinking about having a baby, you may want to consider this research in your family planning. Second, the study provides yet additional evidence that the inflammation and hormones associated with obesity are harmful to humans.

We know that obesity puts us at risk for a number of health problems; now we know that we might be putting our children at risk. For years, overweight individuals have worried that they may have inherited the “fat gene.” Maybe, maybe not. But something is being passed on, and it may be of far greater concern than a “fat gene.”

About the author

Dr. Marshall administrator

Richard Marshall earned an Ed.D. in reading and learning disabilities at West Virginia University in 1982. While completing his doctoral studies he served as an educational specialist in the Pediatric Neurology. Upon completion of his degree he became an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the WVU Medical School. After moving to Florida in 1983, he joined the faculty in the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of South Florida and worked for five years in the Neonatal Developmental Follow-Up Program. In 1993, he completed a Ph.D. in School Psychology at the University of Georgia with an emphasis in Child and Adolescent Neuropsychology. Upon degree completion, he taught courses in the biological bases of behavior and neuropsychology at the University of Texas in Austin. He also served as developmental psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Austin. He and his family returned to Florida in 2001 and he once more became a faculty member at the University of South Florida. He is presently an Associate Professor in the College of Education and he is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the USF College of Medicine. In 2008, Dr. Marshall co-authored the Pediatric Behavior Rating Scale; in 2011, he co-authored The Middle School Mind: Growing Pains in Early Adolescent Brains (2011) and is currently revising the Handbook for Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child (2012). In addition to writing and a busy schedule of workshops and presentations, Dr. Marshall also maintains a private practice in Lakeland, Florida where he specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders; parenting; family therapy; and couples counseling. As part of that practice he maintains a daily blog and he co-hosts The Mental Breakdown Podcast (iTunes, Google Play Music, and YouTube) and the Psychreg Podcast. He has spoken to professional and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America.