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child measuring his stomach

Cognitive function does not predict weight-loss outcome for adolescents

child measuring his stomach

Though young people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairment have greater rates of obesity and other comorbidities that impact their health and well-being, primary care providers are often reluctant to discuss or refer these patients for weight-loss surgery due to concerns about their ability to assent to both the surgery and the ongoing diet and lifestyle changes after surgery.

However, a study in Pediatrics authored by psychologists at Children’s National Health System finds that these young people, including those with Down syndrome, have similar weight-loss trajectories to those with typical cognitive function after bariatric surgery. The study is the first to look at post-surgical outcomes for this subgroup of adolescent bariatric surgery patients.

“It’s challenging to ensure that an adolescent who is cognitively impaired understands what it means to undergo a surgical procedure like bariatric surgery, but we do find ways to ensure assent whenever possible, and make sure the patient also has a guardian capable of consent,” says Sarah Hornack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s National and the study’s first author. “A very important determinant of post-surgical success for any young candidate, however, is a support structure to help them with weight-loss surgery requirements. Often, we see that adolescents with lower cognitive function already have a well-established support system in place to assist them with other care needs, that can easily adapt to providing structure and follow through after weight-loss surgery, too.”

The study reviewed outcomes for 63 adolescents ranging in age from 13 to 24 years old with an average body mass index of 51.2, all of whom were part of the bariatric surgery program at Children’s National Health System. The participants were diagnosed with cognitive impairment or intellectual disability via standardized cognitive assessments as part of a preoperative psychological evaluation or through a previous diagnosis. This study adds to the body of research that is helping to create standard criteria for bariatric surgery in adolescents and teenagers.

Children’s National is one of only a few children’s hospitals with accreditation from the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program of the American College of Surgeons and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery to offer bariatric surgery for adolescents with severe obesity. The extraordinary diversity of the patient population in Washington, D.C., including high rates of young people with obesity, allows the team to collect more comprehensive information about successful interventions across subgroups, including cognitive impairment or developmental disabilities, than nearly every other center in the United States.

“We’re happy to contribute evidence that can help families and care providers make informed health decisions for young people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. So many families are hoping to make sure that their children, despite disabilities, can be as healthy as possible in the long term,” says Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., who is also a clinical psychologist at Children’s National and served as the study’s senior author. “Though the sample size is small, it does give credence to the idea that for many adolescents and teenagers, weight loss surgery may be a really viable option regardless of pre-existing conditions such as intellectual ability or cognitive function.”

child measuring belly with tape measure

Children’s obesity research team presents compelling new findings

child measuring belly with tape measure

Faculty from Children’s National Health System’s Department of Psychology & Behavioral Health set out to learn if any demographic, psychiatric, or cognitive factors play a role in determining if an adolescent should be eligible for bariatric surgery, and what their weight loss outcomes might be. Presenting at the Society for Pediatric Psychology Annual Conference earlier this month, a group of researchers, fellows and clinicians, including surgeons from Children’s National showcased their findings. One of the posters developed by Meredith Rose, LGSW, ML, who works as an interventionist on a Children’s National clinical research team, received special recognition in the Obesity Special Interest Group category.

One presentation reported on a total of 222 pediatric patients with severe obesity, which is defined as 120 percent of the 95th percentile for Body Mass Index. Mean age of the participants was 16 years of age, 71 percent were female and 80 percent where Hispanic or non-White. As part of their preparation for surgery, all patients were required to complete a pre-bariatric surgery psychological evaluation, including a clinical interview and Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia (KSADS-PL) screening. The studies by the Children’s teams were based on a medical record review of the pre-screening information. Adolescents being evaluated for surgery had high rates of mental health diagnoses, particularly anxiety and depression, but also included Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, eating disorders, and intellectual disability.

Another Children’s presentation at the conference looked at weight loss outcomes for adolescents based on IQ and intellectual disability. Overall, neither Full Scale IQ from the Wechsler Abbreviated Intelligence Scale – 2nd edition, nor the presence of an intellectual disability predicted weight loss following surgery.

“The sum of our research found that kids do really well with surgery,” said Eleanor Mackey, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and behavioral health. “Adolescents, regardless of the presence of intellectual disability areas are likely to lose a significant amount of weight following surgery,” added Dr. Mackey.

“This is a particularly important fact to note because many programs and insurers restrict weight loss surgery to ‘perfect’ candidates, while these data points demonstrate that our institution does not offer or deny surgery on the basis of any cognitive characteristics,” says Evan P. Nadler, M.D., associate professor of surgery and pediatrics. “Without giving these kids a chance with surgery, we know they face a lifetime of obesity, as no other intervention has shown to work long-term in this patient population. Our research should empower psychologists and physicians to feel more confident recommending bariatric surgery for children who have exhausted all other weight loss options.”

The research team concluded that examining how individual factors, such as intellectual disability, psychiatric diagnoses, and demographic factors are associated with the surgery process is essential to ensuring adequate and empirically supported guidelines for referral for, and provision of bariatric surgery in adolescents. Next steps by the team will include looking into additional indicators of health improvement, like glucose tolerance, quality of life, or other lab values, to continue evaluating the benefits of surgery for this population.

Adolescent brain scan from obesity study

Imaging captures obesity’s impact on the adolescent brain

Adolescent brain scan from obesity study

For the first time, a team of researchers led by Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University, has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture the brain function of a small population of adolescents with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery.

Obesity affects the whole body, from more obvious physical impacts on bones and joints to more subtle, internal impacts on organs like the brain.

For the first time, a team of researchers has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture the brain function of a small population of adolescents with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery. The goal is to better understand the neural changes that occur when an adolescent is obese, and determine the effectiveness of interventions, such as vertical sleeve gastrectomy, at improving brain function as weight is lost.

The study, published as the November Editors’ Choice in the journal Obesity, found that executive and reward-related brain functions of study participants with obesity improved following the surgical procedure and initial weight loss.

How bariatric surgery changes the teenage brain from Research Square on Vimeo.

“We’ve known for some time that severe obesity has negative consequences on some neurocognitive function areas for adults,” says Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University and a senior author of the study. “But for the first time, we’ve captured fMRI evidence in young patients, and also shown that surgical intervention and the resulting weight loss can reverse some of those deficits.”

“For me, this early evidence makes a strong case that when kids are struggling with severe obesity, we need to consider surgical intervention as an option sooner in the process,” notes Evan Nadler, M.D., director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National Health System, who also contributed to the study. “The question that remains is whether the neurocognitive function improves more if surgery, and thus weight loss, happens earlier – and is there a time factor that should help us determine when to perform a procedure that will maximize improvements?”

The preliminary study included 36 participants and was conducted using patients recruited from the Children’s National Bariatric Surgery program, one of the first children’s hospitals to achieve national accreditation by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program.

“We asked these questions because we know that in the kids we see, their behavioral, brain, and physical health are all very closely related to one another and have an impact on each other,” adds Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., study senior author and co-principal investigator on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grant that funded the project. “We expected that as physical health improves, we might see corresponding improvements in brain and behavior such as cognitive and school performance.”

The study also pointed out some technical and practical challenges to studying this particular young population. Anyone with a BMI greater than 50 was not able to fit within the MR bore used in the study, preventing fMRI participation by those patients.

“In addition to future studies with a larger sample size, we’d like to see if there are neuroimaging markers of plasticity differences in a population with BMI greater than 50,” says Dr. Vaidya. “Does the severity of the obesity change how quickly the brain can adapt following surgery and weight loss?”

The abstract was selected by the journal’s editors as one that provides insights into preventing and treating obesity. It was featured at the Obesity Journal Symposium during Obesity Week 2017 in Washington, D.C., as part of the Obesity Week recognition, and a digital video abstract was also released about the findings.