Does Size Matter?

Dyson Professor Brandon Adams and student Henry Li think it might. The pair is studying the predictive relationships between obesity criteria and neuropsychological deficits.

“It has been shown that individuals who can be classified as obese tend to do poorer on cognitive tests,” says Dyson Psychology Professor Brandon Adams, PsyD. “Typically, those who are overweight display poorer memory and poorer cognitive abilities.”

Controversial as it may sound, Adams and Psychology student Henry Li believe that this is an important topic, worthy of further exploration through Pace’s Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research Initiative. Though their research is still in the early stages, the pair has begun to build a strong foundation for their study, including an examination of prior related studies and multiple interviews with medical professionals from a variety of hospitals and clinics, including Columbia University Medical Center, Wyckoff Hospital, and St. Luke’s Hospital.

“What originally made me interested in this subject was that I was obese myself when I was younger,” Li explains. “Being obese or bigger than an ‘average weight’ person did not really seem to have much of a difference in my eyes. Furthermore, there were many different standards for obesity around the world. I wanted to find out if any of these standards or classifications have any real accuracy or differences.”

To explore the correlation between body and brain power, Adams and Li think the first step is to properly examine how we define obesity. The body mass index (BMI), developed in the mid-19th century, uses an individual’s height and weight to determine body fat. Despite limitations of the BMI’s ability to measure obesity–chief among them that it does not account for muscle mass–it has been commonly used and accepted since its development. The alternative methods for determining body fat being explored by the pair include height-to-waist ratio and hip-to-waist ratio.

“With the growing rate of obesity in the U.S., it is important to understand if the statistics are accurate,” Li notes. “Therefore, it is our goal to find an alternative to the currently used BMI definition.”

During the coming months, Adams and Li hope to gain approval from the Institutional Review Board to begin recruiting sample participants for the second part of their research. Those that fit the researchers’ profile for obesity will be given a battery or neuropsychological tests to measure intelligence, memory, and executive functioning. The two are hoping to examine whether memory and cognitive abilities have an influence on weight or vice-versa.

“Dr. Adams was originally my experimental psychology professor, and I learned a lot [from him] about different ways of conducting research,” says Li. “All last semester for this research we were very busy and had to work individually, but so far we have both learned a lot from what we have gathered and shared with one another.”

To learn more about this and other research projects and pairings, visit the Undergraduate Research Initiative blog.