The neuropathology of obesity: insights from human disease

Acta Neuropathol. 2014 Jan;127(1):3-28. doi: 10.1007/s00401-013-1190-x. Epub 2013 Oct 6.


Obesity, a pathologic state defined by excess adipose tissue, is a significant public health problem as it affects a large proportion of individuals and is linked with increased risk for numerous chronic diseases. Obesity is the result of fundamental changes associated with modern society including overnutrition and sedentary lifestyles. Proper energy homeostasis is dependent on normal brain function as the master metabolic regulator, which integrates peripheral signals, modulates autonomic outflow and controls feeding behavior. Therefore, many human brain diseases are associated with obesity. This review explores the neuropathology of obesity by examining brain diseases which either cause or are influenced by obesity. First, several genetic and acquired brain diseases are discussed as a means to understand the central regulation of peripheral metabolism. These diseases range from monogenetic causes of obesity (leptin deficiency, MC4R deficiency, Bardet-Biedl syndrome and others) to complex neurodevelopmental disorders (Prader-Willi syndrome and Sim1 deficiency) and neurodegenerative conditions (frontotemporal dementia and Gourmand's syndrome) and serve to highlight the central regulatory mechanisms which have evolved to maintain energy homeostasis. Next, to examine the effect of obesity on the brain, chronic neuropathologic conditions (epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease) are discussed as examples of obesity leading to maladaptive processes which exacerbate chronic disease. Thus, obesity is associated with multiple pathways including abnormal metabolism, altered hormonal signaling and increased inflammation which act in concert to promote downstream neuropathology. Finally, the effect of anti-obesity interventions is discussed in terms of brain structure and function. Together, understanding human diseases and anti-obesity interventions leads to insights into the bidirectional interaction between peripheral metabolism and central brain function, highlighting the need for continued clinicopathologic and mechanistic studies of the neuropathology of obesity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Diseases / complications*
  • Brain Diseases / pathology
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Brain Diseases / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / pathology
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Obesity / pathology
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / prevention & control