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White matter microstructural variability mediates the relation between obesity and cognition in healthy adults.


Obesity has been linked with structural and functional brain changes. However, the impact of obesity on brain and cognition in aging remains debatable, especially for white matter. We therefore aimed to determine the effects of obesity on white matter microstructure and potential implications for cognition in a well-characterized large cohort of healthy adults. In total, 1255 participants (50% females, 19-80 years, BMI 16.8-50.2 kg/m2) with diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging at 3T were analysed. Tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS) probed whether body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) were related to fractional anisotropy (FA). We conducted partial correlations and mediation analyses to explore whether obesity or regional FA were related to cognitive performance. Analyses were adjusted for demographic, genetic, and obesity-associated confounders. Results showed that higher BMI and higher WHR were associated with lower FA in multiple white matter tracts (p < 0.05, FWE-corrected). Mediation analyses provided evidence for indirect negative effects of higher BMI and higher WHR on executive functions and processing speed through lower FA in fiber tracts connecting (pre)frontal, visual, and associative areas (indirect paths, |ß| ≥ 0.01; 99% |CI| > 0). This large cross-sectional study showed that obesity is correlated with lower FA in multiple white matter tracts in otherwise healthy adults, independent of confounders. Moreover, although effect sizes were small, mediation results indicated that visceral obesity was linked to poorer executive functions and lower processing speed through lower FA in callosal and associative fiber tracts. Longitudinal studies are needed to support this hypothesis.