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Mon 6 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Nerve damage may be obesity trigger

Damage caused to the chorda tympani nerve by ear infections might play a significant part in childhood obesity, researchers have warned.

Damage caused to the chorda tympani nerve by ear infections might play a significant part in childhood obesity, researchers have warned.

In studies presented at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in Boston, scientists found a history of otitis media can alter the sense of taste, leading to a preference for fatty foods.

"It makes high-fat foods more palatable," said Linda Bartoshuk, of the University of Florida College of Dentistry. "Empirically we know that people with histories of ear infections do gain weight. Empirically we also know that they rate high-fat, high-sweet foods as more pleasant. Are those two connected?"

In the course of ear infections, the chorda tympani nerve - which carries taste sensations to the brain - can be permanently damaged. Researchers believe this can intensify touch sensations in the mouth, so people focus more on the texture cues from fat.

One study, which involved about 450 children, found toddlers who'd had surgery for ear infections were 2.5 times more likely to be overweight than two-year-olds without tubes. The finding held after birth weight, family income, and other factors were taken into account.

A review of data from a US health survey in the 1960s, involving nearly 14,000 children aged six to 17, found that children who had their tonsils removed were 40% more likely to be overweight.

In a large survey of adults who attended a lecture series, Bartoshuk found about 10% of those who reported never having had an ear infection were obese.

By contrast, 17% who had ear infections when they were younger were obese.

"It's telling us that taste does way more than we used to think," said Bartoshuk, who is a professor of community dentistry and behavioural science.

Jim Weiffenbach, a researcher from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, suggested that the knowledge of a sensory basis for over-nutrition could aid the development of new obesity prevention strategies.

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