Eating habits leading to obesity may reflect nonhomeostatic behavior based on excessive immediate-reward seeking. However, it is currently unknown to what extent excess weight is associated with functional alterations in the brain's reward system in children. We tested the integrity of reward circuits using resting-state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging in a population of 230 children aged 8-12 years. The major components of the reward system were identified within the ventral striatum network defined on the basis of the nucleus accumbens connectivity pattern. The functional structure of the cerebral cortex was characterized using a combination of local functional connectivity measures. Higher body mass index was associated with weaker connectivity between the cortical and subcortical elements of the reward system, and enhanced the integration of the sensorimotor cortex to superior parietal areas relevant to body image formation. Obese children, unlike WHO-defined overweight condition, showed functional structure alterations in the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala region similar to those previously observed in primary obsessive-compulsive disorder and Prader-Willi syndrome associated with obsessive eating behavior. Results further support the view that childhood obesity is not simply a deviant habit with restricted physical health consequences but is associated with reward system dysfunction characterizing behavioral control disorders.
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