Unraveling Link Between Cognitive Abilities, Obesity
When you opt for a salad instead of fries or hit the gym instead of the couch, you’re making good use of a process in your brain called executive control.
This cognitive ability matures in childhood, but poor development may set people up for a lifetime of unhealthy choices, contributing to obesity in adolescence and adulthood.
Nebraska psychologist Timothy Nelson’s research into the link between executive control development and risky health behaviors could lead to novel interventions to prevent and treat obesity, a disease affecting 40% of U.S. adults.
“We’re hoping to make real recommendations about how and when to intervene to change health trajectories on this major public health issue,” said Nelson, associate professor of psychology.
He received a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for this research. The project is conducted through Nebraska’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior.
Executive control allows people to hold information in their mind and use it, shift between different tasks and inhibit urges, among other actions. It’s critical to breaking bad habits and finding ways around challenges that hinder reaching goals, such as finding time for physical activity.
To better understand its relationship with healthy behaviors, Nelson’s team is taking advantage of a longitudinal study examining executive control that began in 2006 at the university’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.
Participants, who were in preschool when the study started, periodically take tests measuring their executive control. For Nelson’s study, researchers are also gathering weight and health behavior data, such as food consumption and activity levels.
To incorporate the environment’s role, such as proximity to parks and snack foods, they are geocoding participants’ neighborhoods.
The information will help Nelson develop strategies to promote healthy weight by strengthening children’s cognitive development and modifying food environments.
Nelson collaborates with researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, Boys Town Child and Family Translational Research Center, City University of New York and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Nebraska news release: Nebraska researchers eye link between cognitive abilities, weight