Weight loss, behavioral change, and structural neuroplasticity in children with obesity through a multidisciplinary treatment program

Augustijn, Mireille J.C.M., D’Hondt, Eva, Leemans, Alexander, Van Acker, Lore, De Guchtenaere, Ann, Lenoir, Matthieu, Deconinck, Frederik J.A., Caeyenberghs, Karen


Human Brain Mapping


This study evaluated the effect of a multidisciplinary treatment program for children with obesity (OB) on motor competence, executive functioning (EF), and brain structure. Nineteen children with OB (7–11 years), who attended a multidisciplinary treatment program consisting of diet restriction, cognitive behavioral therapy, and physical activity, were compared with an age-matched control group of 24 children with a healthy weight (HW), who did not follow any treatment. For both groups, anthropometric measurements and tests of motor competence and EF were administered twice, with 5 months between pretest and posttest. Additionally, children’s brain structure was assessed by performing a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan at the pretest and posttest, which included a T1 anatomical scan, diffusion MRI scan, and magnetization transfer imaging scan. Compared to HW controls, children with OB lost a considerable amount of their body mass (p ≤.001) and significantly improved their balance skills (p ≤.001), while no transfer effects of the program were observed for EF. Furthermore, the program resulted in a significant increase in total (p ≤.001) and cerebellar (p ≤.001) gray matter volume in children with OB, while no change was observed in the HW controls. Finally, only weak to moderate (nonsignificant) correlations could be observed between structural brain alterations, weight-related changes, and behavioral improvements. Altogether, this is the first longitudinal study showing behavioral and structural brain alterations in response to a multidisciplinary weight loss program for children with OB. Our findings support the need for multidimensional intervention (and prevention) measures for children with OB to deal with this multifactorial health problem.