Newborn insula gray matter volume is prospectively associated with early life adiposity gain

Int J Obes (Lond). 2017 Sep;41(9):1434-1439. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2017.114. Epub 2017 May 10.


Background: The importance of energy homeostasis brain circuitry in the context of obesity is well established, however, the developmental ontogeny of this circuitry in humans is currently unknown. Here, we investigate the prospective association between newborn gray matter (GM) volume in the insula, a key brain region underlying energy homeostasis, and change in percent body fat accrual over the first six months of postnatal life, an outcome that represents among the most reliable infant predictors of childhood obesity risk.

Methods: A total of 52 infants (29 male, 23 female, gestational age at birth=39(1.5) weeks) were assessed using structural MRI shortly after birth (postnatal age at MRI scan=25.9(12.2) days), and serial Dual X-Ray Absorptiometry shortly after birth (postnatal age at DXA scan 1=24.6(11.4) days) and at six months of age (postnatal age at DXA scan 2=26.7(3.3) weeks).

Results: Insula GM volume was inversely associated with change in percent body fat from birth to six-months postnatal age and accounted for 19% of its variance (β=-3.6%/S.D., P=0.001). This association was driven by the central-posterior portion of the insula, a region of particular importance for gustation and interoception. The direction of this effect is in concordance with observations in adults, and the results remained statistically significant after adjusting for relevant covariates and potential confounding variables.

Conclusions: Altogether, these findings suggest an underlying neural basis of childhood obesity that precedes the influence of the postnatal environment. The identification of plausible brain-related biomarkers of childhood obesity risk that predate the influence of the postnatal obesogenic environment may contribute to an improved understanding of propensity for obesity, early identification of at-risk individuals, and intervention targets for primary prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Absorptiometry, Photon
  • Adiposity / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Pediatric Obesity / etiology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Weight Gain / physiology