Background: The hypothalamus plays an important role in regulating body weight through its interactions with multiple brain circuits involved in distinct aspects of feeding behavior. Yet, how hypothalamic gray matter volume (GMV) and connectivity may be related to individual differences in body weight remains unclear. We tested the hypothesis that the hypothalamus shows enhanced resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC) with regions of the reward, motivation, and motor circuits in positive correlation with body mass index (BMI) and the opposite with those associated with inhibitory control. We further examined the interdependent relationships between hypothalamic GMV, connectivity, and body weight.
Methods: Using seed-based rsFC and voxel-based morphometry analyses, we examined the relationship between the rsFC and GMV of the hypothalamus and BMI in 105 healthy humans. Additionally, we employed mediation analyses to characterize the inter-relationships between hypothalamic connectivity, GMV, and BMI.
Results: A whole-brain multiple regression showed that BMI was positively correlated with hypothalamic rsFC with the insula, thalamus, globus pallidus, and cerebellum, and negatively correlated with hypothalamic rsFC with the superior parietal lobule. Thus, higher BMI was associated with enhanced hypothalamic connectivity with regions involved in motivated feeding and reduced connectivity with those in support of cognitive control of food intake. A second whole-brain multiple regression revealed a positive correlation between hypothalamic GMV and the hypothalamus-posterior insula connectivity. Finally, the relationship between hypothalamic GMV and BMI was significantly and bidirectionally mediated by the hypothalamus-posterior insula connectivity.
Conclusions: The current findings suggest that the hypothalamus differentially interacts with the motivation, motor, and control circuits to regulate BMI. We further found evidence for the interdependence of hypothalamic structure, function, and body weight, which provides potential insights into the brain mechanisms of obesity.