Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Stem cells discovered that might lead to on-off switch for appetite

An international team of researchers recently reported a tantalizing, if very distant, possibility of being able to reset the appetite control switch in our brains. With an estimated 1.4 billion people overweight worldwide this could be a major boon to health and health care costs. In the U.S. alone weight related health issues cost more than $60 billion a year.

Don’t bank these savings yet. The current discovery is one step of many that will be required before the ability to fine tune appetite becomes a reality. The “Before Its News” web site posted an excellent review of what the current finding is and is not. You can read it here.

What it is, is a very big first step. While some parts of the adult brain have been shown to have plasticity—the ability to add new cells—the section responsible for appetite, known as the hypothalamus, generally has not been believed to have that capacity, or not much of it. The hypothalamus regulates much of the body’s inputs and outputs, the sleep-wake cycle, energy use, thirst and appetite.

The current team, that includes scientists from the UK, Germany, Finland and the University of California Los Angeles, found stem cells in the hypothalamus that could produce new neurons in the specific section that controls appetite. More important, they found that these so-called daughter cells could produce hormones known to regulate appetite.

The lead author of the study, Mohammad Hajihosseini, of the University of East Anglia in the UK was quoted in BBC news on the importance of this first step:

“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. But this study has shown that the neural circuitry that controls appetite is not fixed in number and could possible be manipulated numerically to tackle eating disorders.”

The first caveat is this work was done in mice and it may be difficult to find similar stem cells in human tissue. But even in mice, researchers need to see if manipulating the numbers of these cells has an impact, for example in a genetically bred obese mouse.

The team published its work in the Journal of Neuroscience online April 3.

DG

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