Animal studies suggest that obesity-related diets induce structural changes in the hypothalamus, a key brain area involved in energy homeostasis. Whether this translates to humans is however largely unknown. Using a novel multimodal approach with manual segmentation, we here show that a higher body mass index (BMI) selectively predicted higher proton diffusivity within the hypothalamus, indicative of compromised microstructure in the underlying tissue, in a well-characterized population-based cohort (n1 = 338, 48% females, age 21-78 years, BMI 18-43 kg/m²). Results were independent from confounders and confirmed in another independent sample (n2 = 236). In addition, while hypothalamic volume was not associated with obesity, we identified a sexual dimorphism and larger hypothalamic volumes in the left compared to the right hemisphere. Using two large samples of the general population, we showed that a higher BMI specifically relates to altered microstructure in the hypothalamus, independent from confounders such as age, sex and obesity-associated co-morbidities. This points to persisting microstructural changes in a key regulatory area of energy homeostasis occurring with excessive weight. Our findings may help to better understand the pathomechanisms of obesity and other eating-related disorders.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors declare no competing interests.
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