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RSNA: Brain Response to Food Odors Different in Obese Children

Food smells elicit stronger reactions in heavier children, small study finds

TUESDAY, Nov. 24, 2015 (HealthDay News) — Obese children may have difficulty resisting food because of how their brain is wired, a new study suggests. The findings were scheduled to be presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, held from Nov. 29 to Dec. 4 in Chicago.

The researchers used two types of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare brain imaging results from 30 children, ages 6 to 10. During the MRI, the children smelled chocolate, onion, and a non-food smell of diluted acetone, the active ingredient in nail polish remover. Half the children had a body mass index (BMI) between 19 and 24 kg/m², and half had a BMI over 30 kg/m².

When the children with obesity smelled the chocolate or onion, the researchers saw activity in the part of their brain involved in impulsive decisions but did not see activity in the part of the brain that controls the impulse to eat, study author Pilar Dies-Suarez, M.D., head of radiology at the Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital of Mexico in Mexico City, told HealthDay. When the children with normal BMI smelled food, the researchers saw activity in parts of the brain related to regulating pleasure, planning, and emotional processing or memory. The brain responses in children with obesity were also much greater when they smelled the chocolate and the onion compared to the responses in the normal-weight children. When the obese children smelled the acetone, the active parts of their brain were related to memories and risk assessment.

“This probably shows the brain processing of a smell which is not that usual,” possibly trying to determine whether it’s a safe food, Dies-Suarez said. “In contrast, the normal-weight volunteers seemed to be uninterested in this stimulus.”

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