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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

for the IMAGEN Consortium

Original languageEnglish
Article number278
JournalBMC Medicine
Issue number1
Published1 Dec 2020

King's Authors


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.

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