Rethinking Bariatric Surgery: How Weight Loss Procedures Improve Brain Health

Rethinking Bariatric Surgery: How Weight Loss Procedures Improve Brain Health

Alex Brecher

Recent studies have unveiled that bariatric surgery not only provides remarkable physical health benefits but may also enhance neurological health by improving cognition in certain individuals. Post-surgery, participants demonstrated significant improvements in their brain's health, particularly in areas associated with attention and episodic memory. Cognitive function improvements were observed to last for up to two years following the surgery.

A Glimpse into the Study

According to this groundbreaking study published in JAMA Network Open, the health benefits of bariatric surgery extend beyond weight loss. Results indicate enhancements in cortical thickness, overall health, cognitive functioning, and blood vessel efficiency. Notably, these benefits were reported to persist in some subjects for up to two years after the surgery.

The research involved 133 participants aged 35 to 55 with a mean age of around 47, out of which about 80% were females. Through the use of MRI scans, laboratory tests, and neuropsychological tests, cognition was evaluated at the baseline and again at 6 months and 24 months after the surgery. The specific type of procedure referenced in the study is the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass.

Key Findings

The study's evaluation was comprehensive, including weight loss data gathered from BMI, body weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, and percentage of total body weight loss. The results were striking; after the conclusion of the study:

  • 11% of the participants experienced improvement in their working memory.
  • 31% showed enhancements in episodic memory.
  • 24% reported improvements in verbal fluency.
  • 40% were more proficient in shifting their attention.
  • 43% registered improvement in global cognition.

Reduction in depressive symptoms was also witnessed post-surgery.

The Impact on Brain Structure

Moreover, neuroimaging of the temporal lobe revealed structural and functional changes in many participants, most notably a thicker cortex after the surgery that was observed during the two-year follow-up period. The temporal lobe plays a critical role in numerous processes such as memory, language and object recognition, as well as vision and sound processing.

Physiological Improvements

Other critical findings included significant lowering of BMI, waist circumference, inflammatory markers, mean body weight, and blood pressure at 6-month and 24-month follow-ups post-surgery. A substantial decrease in medication usage for comorbidities was observed 24 months after surgery and many participants reported an increase in their physical activities.

Expert Insights

The results from this study were described as "quite interesting" by Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon unrelated to this study. He acknowledged that while it's common knowledge obesity affects all major organs, it's surprising yet important to learn that it impacts the brain also.

Beyond Weight Loss: Exploring the Cognitive Benefits

Losing weight often spurs numerous physiological changes, such as improvements in depressive symptoms, inflammatory biomarkers, and co-morbidities. Some of these alterations may potentially stabilize or reverse obesity-accelerated brain aging, post-baricatric surgery.

Addressing Limitations and Next Steps

However, the researchers also pointed out some limitations to their study. For example, the lack of a control group raised questions about whether the observed changes were due to extended obesity or natural aging. Moreover, as women composed the majority of the participants and are more prone to brain atrophy, the findings may not apply to the overall population. The researchers also underscored that the gender distribution in their study reflects the typical demographic undergoing bariatric surgery.

Nonetheless, this research brings new understanding about bariatric surgery, moving beyond its traditional roles of achieving weight loss and ameliorating conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea. These procedures, which modify the stomach and intestines, not only reduce food intake but also induce long-lasting feelings of satiety, now appear to have far-reaching effects on the brain, reshaping our understanding of the brain-obesity interplay.

Bariatric surgery and brain health