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The Neuroscience of Obesity: Developing Executive Control, Neural Processes, and Obesity Risk

Cara Celine Tomaso, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Obesity continues to pose a major public health problem, with one-third of children and adolescents classified as overweight or obese. To develop evidence-based interventions, novel studies that take a developmental perspective and aim to explicate modifiable factors contributing to obesity are needed. Defined as a set of critical cognitive abilities responsible for directing attention and other behaviors, executive control is a modifiable construct that has links to chronic disease risk and health behaviors, including weight problems. However, the literature examining executive control and obesity has yet to fully investigate the directionality of the association between these constructs, and neuroimaging research that considers malleable correlates of appetitive executive control (defined here as neural activity during efforts to downregulate responses to food cravings) is lacking. Spanning late childhood and late adolescence, this dissertation addresses these gaps in the literature and contributes to ongoing efforts to better understand obesity etiology across pediatric development. Study 1 investigated reciprocal associations between three executive control components—inhibitory control, working memory, and flexible shifting—and body mass index (BMI) percentile across grades one through four. Random intercept cross-lagged panel models were tested. Better inhibitory control performance predicted lower subsequent BMI at each timepoint, and better working memory and flexible shifting performance in grade three predicted lower subsequent BMI in grade four. However, BMI did not predict subsequent executive control performance at any timepoint. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) task with food images, Study 2 investigated cognitive correlates of individual differences in appetitive executive control among older adolescents. Participants were instructed to use a cognitive reappraisal strategy intended to reduce desire for palatable but unhealthy foods. In addition to providing further support for the role of lateral and medial regions within the prefrontal cortex in regulating food cravings, results tentatively indicate a relationship between general inhibitory control abilities and neural markers of appetitive executive control. Findings from both studies are discussed in terms of their clinical implications for obesity intervention and prevention efforts.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Tomaso, Cara Celine, "The Neuroscience of Obesity: Developing Executive Control, Neural Processes, and Obesity Risk" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI29166884.