Newly identified nerve cells deep in the brains of mice compel them to eat. Similar cells exist in people, too, and may ultimately represent a new way to target eating disorders and obesity.
Certain nerve cells in the human brain region called the nucleus tuberalis lateralis, or NTL, are known to malfunction in neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. But “almost nothing is known about [the region],” says study coauthor Yu Fu of the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium, Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
After newly discovered food-clamoring brain cells in a region called the tuberal nucleus are killed, mice gain less weight in the following weeks (red line) than mice that still have the cells (blue line).
Not only do these cells exist in mice, but they have a big role in eating behavior. The neurons sprang into action when the mice were hungry, or when the hunger-signaling hormone ghrelin was around, the team found. And when the researchers artificially activated the cells, using either laser light or molecular techniques, the mice ate more and gained weight faster than normal mice. Conversely, when the researchers killed the neurons, the mice didn’t eat as much and gained less weight than mice that still possessed the cells. The results suggest that, in mice, these neurons influence the impulse to eat — and subsequent changes in weight.