2023-08-24| R&D

Decoding Overweight and Obesity: The Significance of Brain Structure

by Sinead Huang
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The hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain, is a small region about the size of an almond, yet it plays a crucial role in regulating appetite and controlling body weight. In recent years, the issue of obesity has become a significant global health concern. Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College are striving to unravel the complex relationship between the hypothalamus and obesity.

Related Article: Scientists Unlocked the Secret of Genetic Impact of Time-restricted Eating in Mice

The Connection Between Obesity and the Brain

Obesity not only affects appearance but also has links to various health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even mental health issues. However, the question of why some individuals are prone to overeating and struggle with weight control remains enigmatic. In the quest to uncover the causes of obesity, scientists are gradually discovering the pivotal role played by the hypothalamus.

Recent studies have delved deep into the functions of the hypothalamus and highlighted its close association with body weight and diet. Researchers utilized machine learning algorithms to analyze magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans from 1,351 young adults and compared differences in the hypothalamus among individuals with varying body weights – including underweight, healthy weight, overweight, and obese individuals. Obesity levels were measured using the Body Mass Index (BMI), with BMI less than 18.49 defined as underweight, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 considered healthy weight, a BMI between 25 and 29.9 indicating overweight, and a BMI above 30 indicating obesity.

Impact of Hypothalamic Brain Structure on Weight and Diet

A study published in NeuroImage: Clinical by the University of Cambridge team revealed that in young adults who were overweight or obese, the overall volume of the hypothalamus was significantly larger. Additionally, there was a significant correlation between hypothalamic size and BMI. This volume difference was most prominent in subregions of the hypothalamus responsible for releasing hormones that balance hunger and satiety.

However, researchers point out that the significance of this finding is still unclear, including the causal relationship between these brain structure changes and overweight or obesity issues. One possibility is that these changes are related to inflammation. Past animal studies have shown that a high-fat diet may cause inflammation in the hypothalamus, leading to insulin resistance and obesity. In mouse experiments, just three days of a high-fat diet were sufficient to trigger this inflammation. Other research also suggests that this inflammation might raise the threshold for animals to feel satiated; in other words, they need more food than usual to feel full.

This study preliminarily found, from a limited sample size, that among obese participants, both the anterior and posterior structures of the hypothalamus were significantly larger than in the healthy weight control group. Furthermore, the study found that in females with eating disorders, the reduced volume of the hypothalamus was proportionate to intracranial volume, likely resulting from an overall decrease in brain size. The same finding was observed in the Human Connectome Project (HCP) database, a larger database of young individuals’ brain connectivity, indicating a significant increase in hypothalamic volume in cases of overweight and obesity (BMI > 24.9 kg/m²).

This research offers a new perspective on understanding the causes of obesity, revealing how the hypothalamus influences our appetite and body weight by regulating gene expression. However, further research is required to delve deeper into this complex process and find more effective ways to address obesity. A thorough understanding of the hypothalamus and its impact on obesity might provide new directions for future obesity treatments and health management.

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