The hypothalamus, hormones, and hunger: alterations in human obesity and illness

Prog Brain Res. 2006:153:57-73. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(06)53003-1.


Obesity is a major global epidemic, with over 300 million obese people worldwide, and nearly 1 billion overweight adults. Being overweight carries significant health risks, reduced quality of life, and impaired socioeconomic success, with profound consequences for health expenditure. The most successful treatment for obesity is gastric bypass surgery, which acts in part by reducing appetite through alterations in gut hormones. Circulating gut hormones, secreted or suppressed after eating food, act in the brain, particularly the hypothalamus, to alter hunger and fullness. Stomach-derived ghrelin increases food intake even in those with anorexia from chronic illness, while pancreatic polypeptide (PP), intestinal peptide YY 3-36 (PYY), oxyntomodulin, and other hormones reduce food intake and appetite. While obese subjects have appropriate reductions in orexigenic ghrelin, other gut-hormone disturbances may contribute to obesity such as reduced anorexigenic PYY and PP. Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) arises from the loss of paternally inherited genes on chromosome 15q11-13, leading to life-threatening insatiable hunger and obesity from early childhood, through developmental brain, particularly hypothalamic defects. The study of genetically homogenous causes of abnormal-feeding behavior helps our understanding of appetite regulation. PWS subjects have inappropriately elevated plasma ghrelin for their obesity, at least partly explained by preserved insulin sensitivity. It remains unproven if their hyperghrelinemia or other gut-hormone abnormalities contribute to the hyperphagia in PWS, in addition to brain defects. Postmortem human hypothalamic studies and generation of animal models of PWS can also provide insight into the pathophysiology of abnormal-feeding behavior. Changes in orexigenic NPY and AGRP hypothalamic neurons, or anorexigenic oxytocin neurons have been found in illness and PWS. Functional neuroimaging studies, using PET and fMRI, will also allow us to tease apart the hormonal and brain pathways responsible for controlling human appetite, and their defects in obesity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Hormones*
  • Humans
  • Hunger*
  • Hypothalamus* / metabolism
  • Hypothalamus* / pathology
  • Hypothalamus* / physiopathology
  • Obesity* / metabolism
  • Obesity* / pathology
  • Obesity* / physiopathology


  • Hormones