University of Vermont

Undergrad's Summer Research Explores Kids' Brains and Obesity

McLeod and study participants
Senior Vienna McLeod guides study participants through her questionnaire.

Rising senior Vienna McLeod is spending her summer administering a questionnaire and set of computer tasks for her research project -- funded by two UVM undergraduate research awards -- that investigates the effect of childhood obesity on brain function. With advising from Professor Connie Tompkins, McLeod, an exercise and movement science major, is hoping to provide data that will help scientists determine whether the onset of obesity at a young age affects development of executive brain function of the frontal lobes.

That's important, she says, because the brain undergoes critical development throughout adolescent periods. At some point, the brain's developmental changes become irreversible, and executive brain functions like planning and inhibition, for example, could have lasting impact on weight control. McLeod says there's a "chicken or the egg" mystery when it comes to the brain and obesity, and cracking it could be helpful for battling the nation's epidemic. Which comes first? Is executive dysfunction causing obesity, or is obesity leading to executive dysfunction? The developmental years are key to gaining more insight, she says.

It's research McLeod hopes to continue in grad school, where she'd like to add brain imaging to her toolkit for studying this complex subject. In the meantime, she has more research study participants to find and test, a Fulbright Fellowship application to complete, and research results to analyze and hopefully publish.

Local parents with kids aged 8-18 can help with that first hurdle. McLeod is looking for children of healthy weight or obese to complete her set of questions and computer tasks. The questions, some of which are answered by the child and some by the parent, explore dietary and exercise habits. The computer tasks measure brain function through a word association and gambling game. If you're interested in participating, email for more information.