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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Jul 2;116(27):13266-13275. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1816908116. Epub 2019 Jun 17.

A hypothesis linking the energy demand of the brain to obesity risk.

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Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208;
Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208.
Department of Population Health, New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY 10016.


The causes of obesity are complex and multifactorial. We propose that one unconsidered but likely important factor is the energetic demand of brain development, which could constrain energy available for body growth and other functions, including fat deposition. Humans are leanest during early childhood and regain body fat in later childhood. Children reaching this adiposity rebound (AR) early are at risk for adult obesity. In aggregate data, the developing brain consumes a lifetime peak of 66% of resting energy expenditure in the years preceding the AR, and brain energy use is inversely related to body weight gain from infancy until puberty. Building on this finding, we hypothesize that individual variation in childhood brain energy expenditure will help explain variation in the timing of the AR and subsequent obesity risk. The idea that brain energetics constrain fat deposition is consistent with evidence that genes that elevate BMI are expressed in the brain and mediate a trade-off between the size of brain structures and BMI. Variability in energy expended on brain development and function could also help explain widely documented inverse relationships between the BMI and cognitive abilities. We estimate that variability in brain energetics could explain the weight differential separating children at the 50th and 70th BMI-for-age centiles immediately before the AR. Our model proposes a role for brain energetics as a driver of variation within a population's BMI distribution and suggests that educational interventions that boost global brain energy use during childhood could help reduce the burden of obesity.


body composition; cerebral metabolic rate; childhood; energetics; neurology

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