Melinda Sothern, PhD, CEP, Professor and Director of the Behavioral and Community Health Sciences Program at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Public Health, has been awarded $675,000 in grant funding to advance her research on the role of social, genetic, environmental and behavioral determinants of future obesity. Five years later, Dr. Sothern is bringing back the same group of healthy children, now adolescents, in which she previously discovered early predictors of metabolic syndrome when they were 7-9 years old. The funding, from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, is a sub-project in collaboration with the University of Alabama Birmingham.
"With soaring obesity rates and the earlier emergence of related conditions like type 2 diabetes, this type of research is critical," notes Dr. Melinda Sothern, principal investigator, one of the few scientists conducting cross-sectional studies of obesity in children and adolescents. "The identification of biomarkers at an early age may offer targets for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention."
Dr. Sothern previously documented evidence that supports relationships seen in adolescents between insulin sensitivity and fatty liver, belly fat, and total body fat and identified additional potential early markers of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome in healthy 7-9 year-old children, including fat in muscle cells, blood pressure, physical activity, and birth weight. The study found that fat in the liver, abdominal fat, and fat oxidation predicted insulin resistance and appear to be early markers for the metabolic syndrome via a mechanism of impaired lipid metabolism and fat oxidation. Impaired metabolic function may be due, in part, to pre-and post natal factors that are modified by current physical activity. Therefore, race, low or high pregnancy weight and/or birth weight, and low physical activity collectively create a phenotype for poor metabolic function leading to increased risk for insulin resistance in young children.
"In order to fully capitalize on the wealth of data that we have successfully gathered and analyzed thus far, we feel it is essential that we establish a longitudinal group," says Dr. Sothern. "This will enable us to examine prospectively the development of obesity and metabolic dysfunction and its relationship to inflammation from puberty to adolescence in healthy, non-obese and obese children."