In the past two decades there has been a statistically significant increase in not only obesity but also type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents. This has led scientists to investigate a possible connection between how food is processed in children’s bodies, and the early onset of obesity and insulin resistance. Now, researchers from Yale University have presented two studies detailing this connection at the American Diabetes Association's 74th Scientific Sessions.

Generally, diabetes in children and adolescents is an autoimmune condition in which the body’s defense cells attack the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This is called type 1 diabetes, and is a chronic life-long condition. On the other hand, type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin or doesn't make enough insulin. Being overweight or obese is one of the primary causes of type 2 diabetes. And although type 2 used to be associated with adults over 40, more children are beginning to develop it as they continue to be obese.

Children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are known to have poor glycemic control. The research team from Yale University School of Medicine tried to understand the reason behind this by comparing how the brains of adolescents and adults differed after drinking a glucose-filled beverage. In adolescents, they found that glucose increased blood flow in the regions of the brain associated with reward, motivation, and decision-making. In adults, glucose decreased blood flow in these regions.

"While we cannot speculate directly about how glucose ingestion may influence behavior, certainly we have shown that there are differences in how adults and adolescents respond to glucose," said lead researcher Dr. Ania Jastreboff, an assistant professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine, in a press report. "This is important because adolescents are the highest consumers of dietary added sugars. This is just the first step in understanding what is happening in the adolescent brain in response to consumption of sugary drinks. Ultimately, it will be important to investigate whether such exposure to sugar during adolescence impacts food and drink consumption, and whether it relates to the development of obesity."

The presentation, which will be made by German researchers who were also involved, was based on a study conducted at the University Children's Hospital in Leipzig, where they compared the biology and composition of fat cells between lean and obese children and adolescents. They found that when children become obese, sometimes as early as 6 years old, the number of adipose cells — fat cells — in their bodies increases, while also becoming larger than they normally would be in lean children. In turn, obese children could experience dysfunction in their fat tissue, which plays a central role in lipid and glucose metabolism. The researchers also found evidence of inflammation in these fat cells, which can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and other problems such as high blood pressure.

"Our research shows that obese children start to have not only more but also larger adipocytes, or fat cells, at a very young age, and that this is associated with increased inflammation, and is linked to impaired metabolic function," said lead researcher Dr. Antje Körner, a professor of pediatrics and pediatric researcher at the Pediatric Research Center, University Children's Hospital, Leipzig. "What we were interested in was seeing whether something was already going on with the adipose tissue itself if the children become obese at an early age, and it appears that there is. It's important because this can contribute to the development of comorbidities of obesity in children, such as diabetes."

Source: Körner A, Jastreboff A, et al. At The American Diabetes Association's 74th Scientific Sessions. 2014.