Background and objectives: Family-based behavioral treatment (FBT) is the recommended treatment for children with common obesity. However, there is a large variability in short- and long-term treatment response, and mechanisms for unsuccessful treatment outcomes are not fully understood. In this study, we tested if brain response to visual food cues among children with obesity before treatment predicted weight or behavioral outcomes during a 6-month behavioral weight management program and/or long-term relative weight maintenance over a 1-year follow-up period.
Subjects and methods: Thirty-seven children with obesity (age 9-11 years, 62% male) who entered active FBT (attended two or more sessions) and had outcome data. Brain activation was assessed at pretreatment by functional magnetic resonance imaging across an a priori set of appetite-processing brain regions that included the ventral and dorsal striatum, mOFC, amygdala, substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area, and insula in response to viewing food images before and after a standardized meal.
Results: Children with more robust reductions in brain activation to high-calorie food cue images following a meal had greater declines in BMI z-score during FBT (r = 0.42; 95% CI: 0.09, 0.66; P = 0.02) and greater improvements in Healthy Eating Index scores (r = -0.41; 95% CI: -0.67, -0.06; P = 0.02). In whole-brain analyses, greater activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, specifically by high-calorie food cues, was predictive of better treatment outcomes (whole-brain cluster corrected P = 0.02). There were no significant predictors of relative weight maintenance, and initial behavioral or hormonal measures did not predict FBT outcomes.
Conclusions: Children's brain responses to a meal prior to obesity treatment were related to treatment-based weight outcomes, suggesting that neurophysiologic factors and appetitive drive, more so than initial hormone status or behavioral characteristics, limit intervention success.