Scientists have inched closer to developing a new diet pill that can prevent obesity by “re-wiring” appetite control in the brain.
A new study,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 discovery by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) could offer a long-lasting solution to eating disorders such as obesity.
Scientists investigated 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.
“Unlike dieting,translation of this discovery could eventually offer a permanent solution for tackling obesity,” lead researcher Dr Mohammad K Hajihosseini,said.
“Loss or malfunctioning of neurons in the hypothalamus is the prime cause of 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,” he said.
“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.
“The next step is to define the group of genes and cellular processes that regulate the behaviour and activity of tanycytes. 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,” Hajihosseini said.
Researchers said obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally. More than 1.4 billion adults worldwide are overweight and more than half a billion are obese.