Neuroimaging and obesity: current knowledge and future directions

Obes Rev. 2012 Jan;13(1):43-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2011.00927.x. Epub 2011 Sep 8.


Neuroimaging is becoming increasingly common in obesity research as investigators try to understand the neurological underpinnings of appetite and body weight in humans. Positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies examining responses to food intake and food cues, dopamine function and brain volume in lean vs. obese individuals are now beginning to coalesce in identifying irregularities in a range of regions implicated in reward (e.g. striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, insula), emotion and memory (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus), homeostatic regulation of intake (e.g. hypothalamus), sensory and motor processing (e.g. insula, precentral gyrus), and cognitive control and attention (e.g. prefrontal cortex, cingulate). Studies of weight change in children and adolescents, and those at high genetic risk for obesity, promise to illuminate causal processes. Studies examining specific eating behaviours (e.g. external eating, emotional eating, dietary restraint) are teaching us about the distinct neural networks that drive components of appetite, and contribute to the phenotype of body weight. Finally, innovative investigations of appetite-related hormones, including studies of abnormalities (e.g. leptin deficiency) and interventions (e.g. leptin replacement, bariatric surgery), are shedding light on the interactive relationship between gut and brain. The dynamic distributed vulnerability model of eating behaviour in obesity that we propose has scientific and practical implications.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Appetite / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Fasting / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hunger / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods*