Following the restrictions and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Winter Conference 2021 was a welcome opportunity to meet in-person again. Over 165 delegates attended at the Royal Society in London, with a further 171 joining virtually from over 17 countries.
The rising prevalence of obesity is an urgent global public health priority due to associations with reduced life expectancy, quality of life, poorer mental and physical health, reduced economic productivity, and now the poor COVID-19 prognosis. Topically titled ‘Obesity and the brain’, the conference covered the impact of obesity and diet on brain structure and function and shed light on the current challenges for behaviour change interventions.
Professor Louise Dye, University of Leeds, opened the conference with discussion on the relationship between obesity and cognitive function. Given the widely reported increases in stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, exploring the potential effects of stress driving fat deposition and weight gain was timely. Professor Dye noted that dietary interventions including polyphenols have shown beneficial effects on cognitive function in middle aged and older adults and appear to impact on chronic fatigue; a key enduring symptom of COVID-19.
Dr Veronica Witte, Max Planck Institute, followed by highlighting the impact of obesity and diet on brain structure and function. Using neuroimaging data, including the LIFE-Adult study, Dr Witte showed how overweight and obesity are intertwined with markers of brain health in the general population. Higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and visceral fat accumulation correlate with worse cognitive performance, possibly as a result of systemic low-grade inflammation. Subsequently, diet may help to promote brain plasticity, affect brain function and structure.
Although mid-life obesity is associated with alterations in brain structure and decreased cognitive function, the underlying mechanisms remain largely unknown. Professor Amanda Kiliaan, Radboud University, looked at the effect of white adipose tissue (WAT) as a proposed mechanism. Using preliminary results from the BARICO study, she highlighted how dysregulation of WAT appears to increase the number and size of adipocytes and inflammation of the tissue, and negatively impact vascular and brain health.
The first plenary lecture delivered by Professor Dana Small, Yale University, looked at nutrient sensing and predictive neural coding. The metabolic signals generated during glucose metabolism were found to regulate central circuits involved in reinforcement, so that nutritional properties of food can be learned.
In addition to the core scientific programme there were original communications throughout the conference. Congratulations to the student competition winners for best oral and poster presentations.
- Curie Kim, King’s College London, The impact of intermittent energy restriction and mastication on hippocampal cognitive ageing and neural stem cell fate: the change study – chewing, adult neurogenesis and energy restriction
- Aisling Daly, Technological University Dublin, Motivations for food choices in Irish teens from the National Teens' Food Survey II.
Symposium two began with an insightful talk from Dr Helen Croker, World Cancer Research Fund International, looking at the current challenges around behaviour change interventions targeting children. Dr Croker highlighted that the home environment is more likely to influence behaviour than the school environment, with positive parent feeding practices being key to success.
Professor Falko Sniehotta, University of Twente, followed by discussing the behavioural perspective of maintaining weight loss. Whilst there are many interventions that successfully lead to short term weight loss, sustained success requires change to the obesogenic environment.
A breakfast symposium hosted by Noom Inc. looked at the way attitudes and beliefs of obese individuals on COVID-19 relate to future preventive behaviours. Professor Andrew Steptoe, University College London (UCL) highlighted that awareness of obesity being a risk factor marginally predicted faster vaccination uptake and higher engagement with a weight loss programme.
Professor Nicholas Dale, University of Warwick, opened symposium three by discussing how tanycytes have emerged as a locus for change in the expression of genes, that play a role in the control of feeding and energy balance. Professor Rachel Batterham, UCL, followed by discussing the role of the gut in regulating food intake and energy balance; highlighting how bariatric surgery can positively alter the gut hormone profile to reduce hunger and preference for sweet and high fat foods. New data shows how drugs such as semaglutide offer huge promise as a gut hormone-based pharmacotherapy. Professor Susan Ozanne, University of Cambridge, concluded the symposium by examining how the nutritional environment exposed to a developing foetus impacts long-term cardio-metabolic health. Using diet induced obese mouse models, Professor Ozanne showed how impaired glucose tolerance during pregnancy leads to reduced insulin resistance, cardiac dysfunction, hypertension and fatty liver, even when the offspring is born lean. This is a growing concern, with 1 in 7 births now being affected by gestational diabetes.
Professor Janet Treasure, King’s College London, delivered a fascinating plenary lecture to close the conference, looking into new approaches being used to treat eating disorders. Whilst historic cognitive psychotherapy’s have shown low recovery rates, newer approaches using virtual reality, brain training and stimulation have shown significant improvements on eating disorder recovery rates.
Papers from the speakers will be available in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society over the coming months, as well as all presented original communications.