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optogenetics

MC4R PVH neurons-the heart of hunger

Caption: A stylized image of the MC4R-expressing neurons (in red) within the brain’s PVH, which is the “heart of hunger”
Credit: Michael Krashes, NIDDK, NIH

If you’ve ever skipped meals for a whole day or gone on a strict, low-calorie diet, you know just how powerful the feeling of hunger can be. Your stomach may growl and rumble, but, ultimately, it’s your brain that signals when to start eating—and when to stop. So, learning more about the brain’s complex role in controlling appetite is crucial to efforts to develop better ways of helping the millions of Americans afflicted with obesity [1].

Thanks to recent technological advances that make it possible to study the brain’s complex circuitry in real-time, a team of NIH-funded researchers recently made some important progress in understanding the neural basis for appetite. In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers used a variety of innovative techniques to control activity in the brains of living mice, and identified one particular circuit that appears to switch hunger off and on [2].

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NIH-funded AAAS/Science Editors' Choice for 2014 Breakthroughs of the YearModeled after Time’s Person of the Year, the journal Science has a tradition of honoring the year’s most groundbreaking research advances. For 2014, the European Space Agency nabbed first place with the Rosetta spacecraft’s amazing landing on a comet. But biomedical science also was well represented on the “Top 10” list—with NIH helping to support at least four of the advances. So, while I’ve highlighted some of these in the past, I can’t think of a better way for the NIH Director to ring in the New Year than to take a brief look back at these remarkable achievements!

Youth serum for real? Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon may have never discovered the Fountain of Youth, but researchers have engineered an exciting new lead. Researchers fused the circulatory systems of young and old mice to create a shared blood supply. In the old mice, the young blood triggered new muscle and more neural connections, and follow-up studies revealed that their memory formation improved. The researchers discovered that a gene called Creb prompts the rejuvenation. Block the protein produced by Creb, and the young blood loses its anti-aging magic [1]. Another team discovered that a factor called GDF11 increased the number of neural stem cells and stimulated the growth of new blood vessels in the brains of older animals [2].

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Many homemade cupcakes topped with white icing, chocolate drizzle, and a cherry.It’s that time of year again: holiday parties and family feasts! One of the most frequently made—and most often broken—New Year’s resolutions is to follow a sensible diet. All goes well until you catch sight of a cupcake or smell some cookies fresh out of the oven. Sensory cues trigger cravings that crumble resolve and, before you know it, you’re on a sugar high.

Actually, from a biological perspective, it’s not a fair fight. Once desires and preferences are hard-wired in the brain, people have difficulty changing their habits. But one of 2013 recipients of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Kay Tye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, is up for the challenge. In a high-risk, high-reward research project, she’s trying to find ways to control food cravings by reprogramming the brain, where the behavior begins. (more…)

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Christine Denny, Columbia UniversityOne of the most debilitating, and heartbreaking, consequences of Alzheimer’s disease is the way it slowly robs people of their memories. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a cure for Alzheimer’s, let alone a good understanding of exactly how this disease destroys memory skills. That’s why, in this first post in my series highlighting some of the awardees in NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, I’m excited to introduce a young scientist who’s using some cool technology to tackle this formidable challenge: Christine Ann Denny.

A winner of a 2013 NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards (often called the “skip-the-postdoc” award), Denny has developed a technique to label the cells that encode individual memories in the brains of mice. That’s right: she tags the nerve cells that build these memories, the neurons, with a fluorescent molecule that glows. (more…)

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Girl in a lab

Caption: One of the many faces of NIH-supported innovation, Stanford’s Christina Smolke is exploring how synthetic biology and microbes can be used to produce new drugs. She is a 2012 Pioneer Award winner.
Credit: Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service

High-risk research isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for fearless researchers who envision and develop innovative projects with unconventional approaches that, if successful, may yield great leaps in our understanding of health problems and/or biological mechanisms. It takes nerve and creativity to conceive such projects—and, often, special support to bring them to fruition.  And, as the name implies, there is a significant chance of failure.

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