Brain Inflammation: Cause or Effect of Obesity?

Brain inflammation is a mechanism that is gaining a lot of attention to help explain why obesity is so difficult to treat. Anyone affected by obesity can tell you how difficult sustained weight loss can be through diet and physical activity alone. The hypothalamus is a region of the brain well known (by scientists, at least) to control feeding behaviors and the normal regulation of body weight.

Injuries to the hypothalamus have been shown in animals to play a role in the persistence of diet-induced obesity. The idea here is that a diet high in fat which causes obesity can also lead to injuries to the hypothalamus. Among several potential mechanisms for these injuries, inflammation is an important one. Other mechanisms are possible, too.

The problem of translating this animal research into an understanding of the human experience is one that many brilliant scientists are engaged in solving. In a plenary session at the annual meeting of the European Society of Endocrinology, Chun-Xia Yi presented a thorough overview of mechanisms like inflammation in the hypothalamus that might provide clues for treating obesity.

Likewise, Rekha Kumar and Louis Aronne have recently published an overview of what is known about the relationship between obesity and inflammation in the hypothalamus.

Evidence from MRI studies in humans is suggesting that the link observed in animals may hold up in humans. It’s pretty clear that inflammation of the hypothalamus is not causing obesity.

But it may well be that this process of inflammation in the brain can explain a lot about why weight that is so easy to gain, can be so hard to lose.

Click here for the slides presented at the European Society of Endocrinology. Click here for the abstract from the meeting and here for a new review article on the subject by Yi and colleagues. Click here for the paper from Kumar and Aronne.

Neuropeptide Receptors in Thalamic Brain Tissue, photograph © Wellcome Images / flickr

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