Volumetric parcellation methodology of the human hypothalamus in neuroimaging: normative data and sex differences

Makris N, Swaab DF, van der Kouwe A, Abbs B, Boriel D, Handa RJ, Tobet S, Goldstein JM

Neuroimage 2013 Apr;69:1-10

PMID: 23247186


There is increasing evidence regarding the importance of the hypothalamus for understanding sex differences in relation to neurological, psychiatric, endocrine and sleep disorders. Although different in histology, physiology, connections and function, multiple hypothalamic nuclei subserve non-voluntary functions and are nodal points for the purpose of maintaining homeostasis of the organism. Thus, given the critical importance of hypothalamic nuclei and their key multiple roles in regulating basic functions, it is important to develop the ability to conduct in vivo human studies of anatomic structure, volume, connectivity, and function of hypothalamic regions represented at the level of its nuclei. The goals of the present study were to develop a novel method of semi-automated volumetric parcellation for the human hypothalamus that could be used to investigate clinical conditions using MRI and to demonstrate its applicability. The proposed new method subdivides the hypothalamus into five parcels based on visible anatomic landmarks associated with specific nuclear groupings and was confirmed using two ex vivo hypothalami that were imaged in a 7 T (7 T) scanner and processed histologically. Imaging results were compared with histology from the same brain. Further, the method was applied to 44 healthy adults (26 men; 18 women, comparable on age, handedness, ethnicity, SES) to derive normative volumes and assess sex differences in hypothalamic regions using 1.5 T MRI. Men compared to women had a significantly larger total hypothalamus, relative to cerebrum size, similar for both hemispheres, a difference that was primarily driven by the tuberal region, with the sex effect size being largest in the superior tuberal region and, to a lesser extent, inferior tuberal region. Given the critical role of hypothalamic nuclei in multiple chronic diseases and the importance of sex differences, we argue that the use of the novel methodology presented here will allow for critical investigations of these disorders and further delineation of potential treatments, particularly sex-specific approaches to gene and drug discoveries that involve hypothalamic nuclei.