Brain Health,

#132: Obesity and Memory with Dr. Lucy Cheke

June 10, 2016

In episode 132, Jesse talks to Dr. Lucy Cheke, Psychology Lecturer at Cambridge University, about memory and the negative consequences of obesity.

Types of Memory

Memory is not a monolith — there’s more than one kind of memory.

  • Episodic memory is the ability to remember your own personal experience and replay previous events.
  • Declarative memory involves remembering facts (for example, “Paris is the capital of France”).
  • Procedural memory is the ability to remember how to do a task, like ride a bike.

Each type of memory is stored in different areas of the brain.  So, for instance, damage to your hippocampus can affect your episodic or declarative memory, but not your procedural memory.

Dr. Cheke’s most recent research looks at the effects of obesity on episodic memory.

How Obesity Affects Memory

To measure how obesity might affect episodic memory, Dr. Cheke and her colleagues designed a video game in which players where shipwrecked on an island and had to hide specific food in certain spots, across two different days (in the game, not in real life).  They then quizzed participants on all three aspects of the game they just played:  what was hidden, where it was hidden, and when it was hidden.

People who were obese were less able to accurately identify where they had hidden particular items on a particular day.  This indicated to the researchers that obese participants had trouble integrating the disparate components of the video game into a coherent episodic memory.

And it’s not just episodic memory that’s negatively impacted.  Other studies have shown that obesity causes problems with working memory (also known as short-term memory) and executive function (the ability to switch between tasks, focus, and keep track of information).

Further Questions

Obesity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  There are many related conditions, e.g. high blood pressure, insulin resistance, etc., and each of these conditions affects the brain.  One example:  in the brain, insulin functions as an important neurotransmitter for learning and memory.

At the same time, it appears that the very fact of having extra body weight does negatively impact the brain, significantly increasing inflammation.

One of Dr. Cheke’s upcoming studies will try to tease apart these contributing factors and figure out which aspect of obesity affects memory.  (Spoiler alert:  it seems likely that it’s a combination of multiple factors.)

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