Obesity is a multifactorial disorder driven by sustained energy imbalance. The hypothalamus is an important regulator of energy homeostasis and therefore likely involved in obesity pathophysiology. Animal studies suggest that obesity-related diets induce structural changes in the hypothalamus through inflammation-like processes. Whether this translates to humans is however largely unknown. Therefore, we aimed to assess obesity-related differences in hypothalamic macro- and microstructure based on a multimodal approach using T1-weighted and diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) acquired at 3 Tesla in a large well-characterized sample of the Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases (LIFE) cohort ( n 1 = 338, 48% females, age 21-78 years, BMI 18-43 kg/m2). We found that higher body mass index (BMI) selectively predicted higher mean proton diffusivity (MD) within the hypothalamus, indicative of compromised microstructure in the underlying tissue. 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. These findings may help to better understand the pathomechanisms of obesity and other eating-related disorders.
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