Obesity May Be a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Summary: Obesity is, in part, determined by epigenetic development in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus. Findings suggest developmental epigenetics plays a significant role in both environmental and genetic influences on obesity risk.

Source: Baylor College of Medicine

Obesity has increased rapidly in recent decades to affect more than 2 billion people, making it one of the largest contributors to poor health worldwide. Despite decades of research on diet and exercise treatments, many people continue to struggle to lose weight.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and collaborating institutions now think they know why, and say we must shift the focus from obesity treatment to prevention.

The team reports in the journal Science Advances that molecular mechanisms of brain development during early life are likely a major determinant of obesity risk.

Previous large studies in humans have hinted that genes that are most strongly associated with obesity are expressed in the developing brain.

This current study in mice focused on epigenetic development. Epigenetics is a system of molecular bookmarking that determines which genes will, or will not, be used in different cell types.

“Decades of research in humans and animal models have shown that environmental influences during critical periods of development have a major long-term impact on health and disease,” said corresponding author Dr. Robert Waterland, professor of pediatrics-nutrition and a member of the USDA Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor.

“Body weight regulation is very sensitive to such ‘developmental programming,’ but exactly how this works remains unknown.”

“In this study we focused on a brain region called the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus, which is a master regulator of food intake, physical activity and metabolism,” said first author Dr. Harry MacKay, who was a postdoctoral associate in the Waterland lab while working on the project.

“We discovered that the arcuate nucleus undergoes extensive epigenetic maturation during early postnatal life. This period is also exquisitely sensitive to developmental programming of body weight regulation, suggesting that these effects could be a consequence of dysregulated epigenetic maturation.”

The team conducted genome-wide analyses of both DNA methylation—an important epigenetic tag—and gene expression, both before and after closure of the postnatal critical window for developmental programming of body weight.

“One of our study’s biggest strengths is that we studied the two major classes of brain cells, neurons and glia,” MacKays said. “It turns out that epigenetic maturation is very different between these two cell types.”

“Our study is the first to compare this epigenetic development in males and females,” Waterland said.

This shows a weighing scale
Previous large studies in humans have hinted that genes that are most strongly associated with obesity are expressed in the developing brain. Image is in the public domain

“We were surprised to find extensive sex differences. In fact, in terms of these postnatal epigenetic changes, males and females are more different than they are similar. And, many of the changes occurred earlier in females than in males, indicating that females are precocious in this regard.”

The human connection

The biggest surprise came when the investigators compared their epigenetic data in mice to human data from large genome-wide association studies that screen for genetic variants associated with obesity.

The genomic regions targeted for epigenetic maturation in the mouse arcuate nucleus overlapped strongly with human genomic regions associated with body mass index, an index of obesity.

“These associations suggest that obesity risk in humans is determined in part by epigenetic development in the arcuate nucleus,” MacKay said.

“Our results provide new evidence that developmental epigenetics is likely involved in both early environmental and genetic influences on obesity risk. Accordingly, prevention efforts targeting these developmental processes could be the key to stopping the worldwide obesity epidemic.”

Other contributors to this work include Chathura J. Gunasekara, Kit-Yi Yam, Dollada Srisai, Hari Krishna Yalamanchili, Yumei Li, Rui Chen and Cristian Coarfa. The authors are affiliated with one or more of the following institutions: Baylor College of Medicine, Vanderbilt University, Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute atTexas Children’s Hospital and Baylor’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

About this genetics, neurodevelopment, and obesity research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Baylor College of Medicine
Contact: Press Office – Baylor College of Medicine
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Sex-specific epigenetic development in the mouse hypothalamic arcuate nucleus pinpoints human genomic regions associated with body mass index” by Harry MacKay et al. Science Advances


Sex-specific epigenetic development in the mouse hypothalamic arcuate nucleus pinpoints human genomic regions associated with body mass index

Recent genome-wide association studies corroborate classical research on developmental programming indicating that obesity is primarily a neurodevelopmental disease strongly influenced by nutrition during critical ontogenic windows.

Epigenetic mechanisms regulate neurodevelopment; however, little is known about their role in establishing and maintaining the brain’s energy balance circuitry.

We generated neuron and glia methylomes and transcriptomes from male and female mouse hypothalamic arcuate nucleus, a key site for energy balance regulation, at time points spanning the closure of an established critical window for developmental programming of obesity risk.

We find that postnatal epigenetic maturation is markedly cell type and sex specific and occurs in genomic regions enriched for heritability of body mass index in humans.

Our results offer a potential explanation for both the limited ontogenic windows for and sex differences in sensitivity to developmental programming of obesity and provide a rich resource for epigenetic analyses of developmental programming of energy balance.

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  1. So this doesn’t provide much information. Are you saying that during key stages of development something is lacking and it triggers a gene that leads to obesity?

  2. If this explanation is correct, why is obesity a recent problem? What changed in our development? Pictures from a century ago show that most people were lean. Today most of us are at least a little chunky, and many of us are obese.

    I think the main reason for the increase in obesity is that most of us today don’t do nearly as much physical work as our ancestors did. Consider lawn mowing. In the 1940s you provided all of the power to cut the grass. Today most of us ride around on a lawn tractor which does all of the work. There are many other ways we have reduced the physical work we must do in a typical day.

    Of course our food is also different. We have more of it, of a more fattening kind. I do not say that this study is wrong. I say that it is only a small part of the explanation.

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