Chronic obesity is associated with several complications, including cognitive impairment and dementia. However, we have piecemeal knowledge of the mechanisms linking obesity to central nervous system damage. Adiposity leads to the metabolic syndrome, consisting of inflammation, hypertension, dyslipidemia and insulin resistance. In turn, these metabolic abnormalities cause cerebrovascular dysfunction, which may cause white and grey matter tissue loss and consequent cognitive impairment. While there have been several neuroimaging studies linking adiposity to changes in brain morphometry, a comprehensive investigation of the relationship has so far not been done. Here we use structural equation modelling applied to over 14,000 individuals from the UK Biobank to identify the causal chain that links adiposity to cognitive dysfunction. We found that body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio were positively related to higher plasma C-reactive protein, dyslipidemia, occurrence of hypertension and diabetes, all of which were in turn related to cerebrovascular disease as measured by volume of white matter hyperintensities on magnetic resonance imaging. White mater hyperintensities were associated with lower cortical thickness and volume and higher subcortical volumes, which were associated with cognitive deficits on tests of visuospatial memory, fluid intelligence, and working memory among others. In follow-up analyses we found that inflammation, hypertension and diabetes mediated 20% of the relationship between obesity and cerebrovascular disease and that cerebrovascular disease mediated a significant proportion of the relationship between obesity and cortical thickness and volume. We also showed that volume of white matter hyperintensities was related to decreased fractional anisotropy and increased mean diffusivity in the majority of white matter tracts, pointing to white matter dysconnectivity as a major cause of impaired cognition. Our results have clinical implications, supporting a role for the management of adiposity in the prevention of late-life dementia and cognitive decline.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience