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Appetite control

Generating new appetite-regulating neurons

Neural circuitry that controls appetite is not fixed in number and could possibly be manipulated

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have discovered a population of stem cells capable of generating new appetite-regulating neurons in the brains of young and adult rodents, the breakthrough could offer a long-lasting solution obesity and other eating disorders.

"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,” said lead researcher Dr Mohammad K Hajihosseini, from University of East Anglia’s school of Biological Sciences. "Unlike dieting, translation of this discovery could eventually offer a permanent solution for tackling obesity.

Until recently it was thought that all neurons cells were generated during the embryonic period and so the circuitry that controls appetite was fixed. The loss or malfunctioning of neurons in the hypothalamus is the prime cause of eating disorders such as obesity. The new discovery, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, has identified a population of stem cells capable of generating new appetite-regulating neurons in the brains of young and adult rodents.

The investigators the hypothalamus section of the brain - which regulates sleep and wake cycles, energy expenditure, appetite, thirst, hormone release and many other critical biological functions. The study looked specifically at the nerve cells that regulate appetite.

The researchers used 'genetic fate mapping' techniques to make their discovery - 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 established that a population of brain cells called 'tanycytes' behave like stem cells and add new neurons to the appetite-regulating circuitry of the mouse brain after birth and into adulthood.

"The next step is to define the group of genes and cellular processes that regulate the behaviour and activity of tanycytes,” said Hajihosseini. “This information will further our understanding of brain stem cells and could be exploited to develop drugs that can modulate the number or functioning of appetite-regulating neurons.”

Although the researchers acknowledge that the long-term goal of translating the work to humans could take up to five or 10 years, it could nevertheless lead to “a permanent intervention in infancy for those predisposed to obesity, or later in life as the disease becomes apparent."

Co-authors of the study included Drs Niels Haan, Mohammad Hajihosseini, Timothy Goodman, Alaleh Najdi-Samiei and Christina Stratford from Anglia, and Drs Ritva Rice (University of Helsinki), Elie El Agha and Saverio Bellusci (both University of Giessen).

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

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