The impact of neighborhood disadvantage on food, weight, and brain

Body mass index as a mediator between disadvantaged neighborhoods and cortical microstructure.

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Living in disadvantaged neighborhoods can significantly impact various aspects of an individual’s life. This study examines the effects of residing in such neighborhoods on food choices, weight gain, and brain microstructure.

According to a study from UCLA‘s David Geffen School of Medicine, where you live can affect what you eat, how much you weigh, and even how your brain works. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, people often have limited access to healthy foods, eat more unhealthy foods, and need more exercise. These factors can affect brain parts involved in emotions, thinking, and rewards. While previous research showed that living in such neighborhoods could impact brain health, this study looks deeper into how it changes specific parts of the brain.

Arpana Gupta, Ph.D., co-director of the Goodman-Luskin Center and Director of the Neuroimaging Core, said, “We found that neighborhood disadvantage was associated with differences in the fine structure of the brain’s cortex. Some of these differences were linked to higher body mass index and correlated with high intake of the trans-fatty acids found in fried fast food.” 

Gupta said, “Our results suggest that regions of the brain involved in reward, emotion, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding might be affected by aspects of neighborhood disadvantage that contribute to obesity. This highlights the importance of addressing dietary quality issues in disadvantaged neighborhoods to protect brain health.”

Neighborhood disadvantage means living in places with low income, education, crowded conditions, and fundamental plumbing problems. This study had 92 participants, including 27 men and 65 women from the Los Angeles area. Demographic and body mass index information was collected, and neighborhood disadvantage was assessed as to its area deprivation index (ADI) using the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine’s Public Health’s Neighborhood Atlas.

Past research has shown that people in disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to become higher weighted because they can’t access healthy food, eat too many unhealthy calories, and don’t have places to be physically active.

In this study, researchers looked closely at how a neighborhood’s disadvantage, measured by the ADI, affects different parts of the brain cortex. They used special MRI scans that help us see how the brain is structured and how it works.

The cortex has different layers with different jobs, like processing information and sending signals. By studying these layers, the researchers aimed to understand how living in a disadvantaged neighborhood can change the brain.

The results showed that worse ADI scores were linked to changes in brain areas responsible for social interactions. There were also changes in regions related to rewards, managing emotions, and higher-level thinking. These changes were influenced by the intake of trans-fatty acids found in unhealthy foods. 

The study suggests that living in disadvantaged neighborhoods can affect how the brain processes information related to rewards, emotions, and thinking.

Journal Reference:

  1. Kilpatrick, L.A., Zhang, K., Dong, T.S., et al. Mediation of the association between disadvantaged neighborhoods and cortical microstructure by body mass index. Communications Medicine. DOI: 10.1038/s43856-023-00350-5.