Breakthrough in Neuroscience Could Re-Wire Appetite Control: Combating the Obesity Epidemic

First Posted: Apr 05, 2013 12:03 PM EDT

There could be a new way to combat eating disorders such as obesity. Researchers have found a population of stem cells that are capable of generating new appetite-regulating neurons in the brain.

Obesity continues to be a growing problem in the United States and throughout the world. More than 1.4 billion adults worldwide are overweight, and more than half a billion are obese. Associated disorders such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer have continued to spread through populations. This new research, though, could possibly lead to a way to combat the obesity problem.

In this latest study, researchers investigated the hypothalamus section of the brain, the region that regulates sleep and wake cycles, appetite, thirst and many other critical biological functions. In particular, it examined the nerve cells that regulate appetite.

The researchers used a method that tracks the development of stem cells and cells derived from them at desired time points during the life of an animal. They found that a population of brain cells called "tanycytes" behave like stem cells and add new neurons to the appetite-regulating part of a mouse brain after birth and adulthood. In fact, they found that the loss or malfunctioning of the neurons in the hypothalamus is the prime cause for eating disorders such as obesity.

"Until recently, we thought that all of these nerve cells were generated during the embryonic period and so the circuitry that controls appetite was fixed," said Mohammad K. Hajihosseini, the lead researcher, in a press release. "But this study has shown that the neural circuitry that controls appetite is not fixed in number and could possibly be manipulated numerically to tackle eating disorders."

Now the researchers have to translate the work to humans. The study reveals that it may be possible to manipulate rat brains and potentially cure their tendency to be obese, but that doesn't mean that it's applicable to humans--yet. In addition, the researchers will have to find a way to actually affect these neurons in the brain in a way that's both safe and effective.

"Our long-term goal of course is to translate this work to humans, which could take up to five or 10 years," said Hajihosseini in a press release. "It could lead to a permanent intervention in infancy for those predisposed to obesity, or later in life as the disease becomes apparent."

The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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