The neuroendocrinology of childhood obesity

Pediatr Clin North Am. 2001 Aug;48(4):909-30. doi: 10.1016/s0031-3955(05)70348-5.


The regulation of energy balance is enormously complex, with numerous genetic, hormonal, neural and behavioral, and societal influences. Although the current epidemic of obesity clearly has its underpinnings in the changes in culture during the past half-century (see other articles in this issue), the role of the neuroendocrine system in the genesis of obesity, as described in this article, is physiologically and therapeutically unavoidable. An understanding of this system has suggested organic causes (and therapies) for some rare and not-so-rare forms of obesity. With so many inputs, it is not far-fetched to assume that dysfunction of other parts of this feedback system will be found to explain other forms of obesity in the future. What does this mean for obese children entering the pediatrician's office? Fortunately or unfortunately, diet and exercise are the mainstays of obesity therapy for children and adults. Most diet-exercise programs result in an acute 11-kg weight loss in adults; the question is whether it can be sustained without significant long-term behavioral modification. For instance, the European Sibutramine Trial of Obesity Reduction and Maintenance trial showed that 42% of treated subjects drop out; of those remaining, 77% of subjects lost more than 5% of initial body weight, but only 43% of those maintained more than 80% of this over 2 years. Could there be an organic component in those who do not respond? Of course, obesity pharmacotherapies sometimes have beneficial acute effects, but these drugs work for only as long as they are consumed; discontinuation tends to result in a "rebound" weight gain, suggesting that the cause of the obesity is still present. Furthermore, in 2001, there are no obesity drugs approved for children. A useful guiding principle is that children deserve at the minimum an initial medical evaluation, including birth weight, medical history, family history, dietary evaluation, and exercise assessment. Perhaps the most important feature that can distinguish "organic" from "behavioral" weight gain in childhood is the age of the "adiposity rebound." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now supplies BMI charts for boys and girls at Plotting of the BMI versus age allows pediatricians to determine the age at which the BMI starts to increase (mean, 5.5 years). The earlier the adiposity rebound, the more likely the child will be obese as an adult, and the more likely that an organic cause can be determined. In such patients, thyroid levels and fasting insulin and leptin levels should be measured. An initial attempt at diet and exercise is essential; patients who do not respond with BMI stabilization should be investigated for a more ominous cause of their obesity. As the nosology of obesity improves, pediatricians will be able to increase the diagnostic efficiency and therapeutic success of this unfortunate, debilitating, and expensive epidemic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways
  • Appetite Regulation
  • Child
  • Efferent Pathways
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Humans
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Neurosecretory Systems / physiology
  • Neurosecretory Systems / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / physiopathology*


  • Insulin