Developmental Science

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Volume 23 Issue 1 (January 2020), Pages

The development of executive function in early childhood is inversely related to change in body mass index: Evidence for an energetic tradeoff?

Abstract A well‐established literature demonstrates executive function (EF) deficits in obese children and adults relative to healthy weight comparisons. EF deficits in obesity are associated with overeating and impulsive consumption of high calorie foods leading to excess weight gain and to problems with metabolic regulation and low‐grade inflammation that detrimentally affect the structure and function of prefrontal cortex. Here, we test a complementary explanation for the relation between EF and body mass index (BMI) grounded in the energy demand of the developing brain. Recent work shows that the brain accounts for a lifetime peak of 66% of resting metabolic rate in childhood and that developmental changes in brain energetics and normative changes in body weight gain are closely inversely related. This finding suggests a trade‐off in early childhood between energy used to support brain development versus energy used to support physical growth and fat deposition. To test this theorized energetic trade‐off, we analyzed data from a large longitudinal sample (N = 1,292) and found that change in EF from age 3 to 5 years, as a proxy for brain development in energetically costly prefrontal cortex, is inversely related to change in BMI from age 2 to 5 years. Greater linear decline in BMI predicted greater linear increase in EF. We interpret this finding as tentative support for a brain–body energetic trade‐off in early childhood with implications for lifetime obesity risk.

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