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BYU Brain Scan Study to Find Tools for Teen Weight Control

File: Brigham Young University
New MRI Lab at Brigham Young University. It has been used for studying frontal cortex activity in fasting adolescents when they are showed images of high- calorie foods. It's the region of the brain used for executive function control.

A new Brigham Young University study finds that adolescent teens can train their brains to make better food choices.

Neuroscientists used BYU’s new MRI machine to monitor brain activity in the starving students’ frontal cortex as they were shown images of various healthy and unhealthy foods. The frontal cortex is the area of the brain where a person makes decisions and weighs consequences, an act called executive function. Chad Jensen is a BYU professor of psychology and lead author of the study. He says there are very few studies of the eating habits of teens.

“Also, it’s an important period for weight gain so teens who gain weight through adolescence are likely to remain over weight or continue to gain weight into adulthood,” says Jensen.

He says when high-calorie foods were shown to teenagers, those who had successfully lost 30 pounds or more showed the highest level of activity for control of executive function.  Jensen says it’s clear some teens are better than others at executive function even though they all arrive at the study center after fasting for four hours. 

“So they’re all pretty hungry and the foods look quite appealing,” says Jensen. “But it appears those successful weight losers are more able to control the motivation to eat those foods.”

Jensen says a variety of activities can improve that control like specific computer games, and physical activity including martial arts and yoga. He says he wants to expand their studies to include how sleeping habits affect weight control in teens. BYU neuroscientist Brock Kirwan is coauthor of the study. It is published in the scientific journal “Obesity.”

Bob Nelson is a graduate of the University of Utah with a BA in mass communications. He began his radio career at KUER in 1978 when it was still in Kingsbury Hall. That’s also where he met his wife, Maria Shilaos, in 1981. Bob left KUER for commercial radio where he worked for 25 years, and he is thrilled to be back at KUER. Bob and his family are part of an explorer group, fondly known as The Hordes and Masses, which has been seeking out ghost towns and little-known places in Utah for more than twenty years.
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