The obesity epidemic: metabolic imprinting on genetically susceptible neural circuits

Obes Res. 2000 Jul;8(4):342-7. doi: 10.1038/oby.2000.41.


The apparent obesity epidemic in the industrialized world is not explained completely by increased food intake or decreased energy expenditure. Once obesity develops in genetically predisposed individuals, their obese body weight is avidly defended against chronic caloric restriction. In animals genetically predisposed toward obesity, there are multiple abnormalities of neural function that prime them to become obese when dietary caloric density and quantity are raised. Once obesity is fully developed, these abnormalities largely disappear. This suggests that obesity might be the normal state for such individuals. Formation of new neural circuits involved in energy homeostasis might underlie the near permanence of the obese body weight. Such neural plasticity can occur during both nervous system development and in adult life. Maternal diabetes, obesity, and undernutrition have all been associated with obesity in the offspring of such mothers, especially in genetically predisposed individuals. Altered brain neural circuitry and function often accompanies such obesity. This enhanced obesity may then be passed on to subsequent generations in a feed-forward, upward spiral of increasing body weight across generations. Such findings suggest a form of "metabolic imprinting" upon genetically predisposed neural circuits involved in energy homeostasis. Centrally acting drugs used for obesity treatment lower the defended body weight and alter the function of neural pathways involved in energy homeostasis. But they generally have no permanent effect on body weight or neural function. Thus, early identification of obesity-prone mothers, infants, and adults and treatment of early obesity may be the only way to prevent the formation of permanent neural connections that promote and perpetuate obesity in genetically predisposed individuals.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / embryology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Diet
  • Energy Intake
  • Energy Metabolism / genetics
  • Female
  • Genomic Imprinting
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / genetics*
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Pregnancy