Context Prenatal exposure to maternal cigarette smoking is a well-established risk factor for obesity, but the underlying mechanisms are not known. Preference for fatty foods, regulated in part by the brain reward system, may contribute to the development of obesity.
Objective To examine whether prenatal exposure to maternal cigarette smoking is associated with enhanced fat intake and risk for obesity, and whether these associations may be related to subtle structural variations in brain regions involved in reward processing.
Design Cross-sectional study of a population-based cohort.
Setting The Saguenay Youth Study, Quebec, Canada.
Participants A total of 378 adolescents (aged 13 to 19 years; Tanner stage 4 and 5 of sexual maturation), half of whom were exposed prenatally to maternal cigarette smoking (mean [SD], 11.1 [6.8] cigarettes/d).
Main Outcome Measures Fat intake was assessed with a 24-hour food recall (percentage of energy intake consumed as fat). Body adiposity was measured with anthropometry and multifrequency bioimpedance. Volumes of key brain structures involved in reward processing, namely the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and orbitofrontal cortex, were measured with magnetic resonance imaging.
Results Exposed vs nonexposed subjects exhibited a higher total body fat (by approximately 1.7 kg; P = .009) and fat intake (by 2.7%; P = .001). They also exhibited a lower volume of the amygdala (by 95 mm3; P < .001) but not of the other 2 brain structures. Consistent with its possible role in limiting fat intake, amygdala volume correlated inversely with fat intake (r = −0.15; P = .006).
Conclusions Prenatal exposure to maternal cigarette smoking may promote obesity by enhancing dietary preference for fat, and this effect may be mediated in part through subtle structural variations in the amygdala.