The same forces that can make it hard for some kids to pay attention in class could also affect their ability to make healthy choices throughout life, leading to obesity.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Timothy Nelson, associate professor of psychology, is studying how certain cognitive processes that develop throughout childhood affect health behaviors during adolescence and beyond. His research could lead to novel interventions to prevent and treat obesity.
Nelson received a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to further his research. The project is conducted through Nebraska’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, where Nelson is a faculty affiliate.
“I’m really focused on finding new and better ways to intervene,” said Nelson, an applied health psychologist with clinical experience working with children. “We’re hoping to make real recommendations about how and when to intervene to change health trajectories on this major public health issue.”
The brain’s ability to direct attention and behavior is known as executive control. It allows people to hold information in the mind and use it, shift between different tasks and inhibit urges, among other actions. Deficits have been shown to contribute to disruptive behavioral problems and poor academic achievement in children. But little is understood about the link between executive control and risky health behaviors that may cause weight problems.
Nelson and his research team are stretching that understanding, with the goal of improving health during adolescence and into adulthood.
In a health context, executive control allows people to consistently avoid unhealthy snacks, get up and move even when they don’t want to, and go to bed on time, Nelson said. It’s also critical to breaking bad habits and finding ways around challenges that hinder reaching goals, such as a lack of nearby grocery stores or finding time for physical activity.
To better understand the relationship between executive control and obesity, Nelson and his team are taking advantage of an ongoing longitudinal study involving about 300 Nebraska families and is examining executive control development in children. The study was begun in 2006 by faculty in Nebraska’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, reflecting the university’s lasting commitment to research that changes lives. Most of the families remain enthusiastic participants in the longitudinal study, returning regularly to the university for testing, Nelson said.
Participants, in preschool when the study began, periodically take tests that measure their executive control, providing in-depth data on the children’s development. For this new study, the researchers are gathering weight and health behavior data, such as having participants wear activity monitors and randomly surveying daily food consumption.
To incorporate the environment’s role, such as proximity to parks and snack foods, the researchers are geocoding participants’ neighborhoods. They will also look at influences within the participants’ schools, such as the availability of healthy meals and gym classes.
Nelson will correlate the development data with weight and risk behavior outcomes, as well as environmental influences over time, to identify the relationship between executive control, weight and the environment.
Targeted strategies can help children strengthen cognitive skills. Nelson’s research will provide important information about how to improve obesity interventions at key points in executive control development. It will also identify environmental factors that negatively affect executive control, leading to unhealthy behaviors.
“I think executive control could be a new and really important target,” Nelson said, adding that it will provide greater perspective on child and adult obesity than focusing on environmental factors alone.
Nelson’s multidisciplinary team includes Nebraska’s Jennifer Nelson, research associate professor of psychology, and Becca Brock, assistant professor of psychology; Jennie Hill and Amy Yaroch in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center; Alex Mason at the Boys Town Child and Family Translational Research Center; Terry Huang at City University of New York; and Kimberly Espy, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Espy established the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory when she was a Nebraska faculty member and associate vice chancellor for research from 2005-2011. She remains an adjunct professor of psychology.