Association between childhood trauma and risk for obesity: a putative neurocognitive developmental pathway

BMC Med. 2020 Oct 15;18(1):278. doi: 10.1186/s12916-020-01743-2.


Background: Childhood trauma increases the risk for adult obesity through multiple complex pathways, and the neural substrates are yet to be determined.

Methods: Participants from three population-based neuroimaging cohorts, including the IMAGEN cohort, the UK Biobank (UKB), and the Human Connectome Project (HCP), were recruited. Voxel-based morphometry analysis of both childhood trauma and body mass index (BMI) was performed in the longitudinal IMAGEN cohort; validation of the findings was performed in the UKB. White-matter connectivity analysis was conducted to study the structural connectivity between the identified brain region and subdivisions of the hypothalamus in the HCP.

Results: In IMAGEN, a smaller frontopolar cortex (FPC) was associated with both childhood abuse (CA) (β = - .568, 95%CI - .942 to - .194; p = .003) and higher BMI (β = - .086, 95%CI - .128 to - .043; p < .001) in male participants, and these findings were validated in UKB. Across seven data collection sites, a stronger negative CA-FPC association was correlated with a higher positive CA-BMI association (β = - 1.033, 95%CI - 1.762 to - .305; p = .015). Using 7-T diffusion tensor imaging data (n = 156), we found that FPC was the third most connected cortical area with the hypothalamus, especially the lateral hypothalamus. A smaller FPC at age 14 contributed to higher BMI at age 19 in those male participants with a history of CA, and the CA-FPC interaction enabled a model at age 14 to account for some future weight gain during a 5-year follow-up (variance explained 5.8%).

Conclusions: The findings highlight that a malfunctioning, top-down cognitive or behavioral control system, independent of genetic predisposition, putatively contributes to excessive weight gain in a particularly vulnerable population, and may inform treatment approaches.

Keywords: Adult obesity; Childhood trauma; Neurocognitive control pathway; Structural brain imaging.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Weight Gain / physiology*
  • Young Adult

Grant support