The adolescent years are a very critical time for brain maturation, including how well we’ll cope with stress later in life. The lifestyle decisions made during adolescence — as what we eat —can make a big difference in our ability to overcome every day challenges. Healthy food habits are important at any age, but it’s especially important during adolescence.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obesity are highly prevalent in adolescents. Children exposed to trauma and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are particularly at risk for developing obesity later in life. Emerging findings are consistent with the new hypothesis that obese individuals may be predisposed to developing PTSD. Consumption of obesogenic diets during adolescence might predispose individuals to develop PTSD following exposure to trauma.
But how adolescent obesity leads to stress-related psychopathology during adulthood?
The etiology and maintenance of PTSD may be attributable to impairments in cognitive domains, including attention, memory, and learning. Furthermore, there is evidence in favour of the idea that abnormal fear learning and associated top-down inhibitory modulation of emotional centers might play a role in PTSD.
Individuals with PTSD experience difficulty in differentiating safety from threat, which may result in aberrant fear responses. Likewise, the most consistent effects of obesity on behaviour have been related to cognitive impairments, in particular in learning and emotional memory-related tasks. Therefore, it is possible that obesity and PTSD share common neural substrates.
The researchers from Loma Linda University in California hypothesized that consumption of an obesogenic diet during adolescence impairs the neural correlates associated with maladaptive fear responses.
They found that the exposure to an obesogenic diet during adolescence leads to abnormal maturation of neural and behavioural substrates underpinning fear and anxiety. They investigated the impact of an obesogenic Western-like high-saturated fat diet on the development of brain areas involved in responding to fear and stress. And found that the exposure to an obesogenic diet during the critical maturational period of adolescence leads to unique microstructural changes in the brain that may participate in maladaptive fear reactivity and occurrence of mental disorders in adulthood.
Vega-Torres, J. D., Haddad, E., Lee, J. B., Kalyan-Masih, P., George, W. I. M., Pérez, L. L., . . . Figueroa, J. D. (2018). Exposure to an Obesogenic Diet During Adolescence Leads to Abnormal Maturation of Neural and Behavioral Substrates Underpinning Fear and Anxiety. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2018.01.011