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Tracing the Neural Circuitry of Appetite

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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].


Weighing in on Sugary Drinks

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Drinking the occasional sugar-sweetened beverage, be it soda, an energy drink, sweetened water, or fruit punch, isn’t going to make you fat. But it’s now clear that many children and adults are at risk for gaining weight if they consume too much of these products.

An illustration showing that 10 spoonfuls of sugar can be found in a 12oz can of soda, 13 spoonfuls of sugar can be found in a 16oz cup of soda and 26 spoonfuls of sugar can be found in 32oz bottle of soda.I want to share new research from three recent papers in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) because, together, they provide some of the most compelling evidence of the role of sugary drinks in childhood obesity, which affects nearly one-fifth of young people between the ages of 6 and 19.

In the first study [1], researchers randomly assigned 641 normal-weight school children between the ages of 4 and 12 to one of two groups. The first group received an 8 oz sugary drink each day; the second received the artificially sweetened version. After 18 months, it was clear that the kids consuming the sugary drink had gained about 2.25 pounds more weight, compared with the kids drinking the zero calorie drinks. They also packed on more fat.


A View of the U.S. Obesity Epidemic

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Map showing Percent of Obese (BMI > 30) in U.S. Adults in 1985

 

Map showing Percent of Obese (BMI > 30) in U.S. Adults in 1995 by state

 

Map showing Percent of Obese (BMI > 30) in U.S. Adults in 2005 by state

 

Map showing Percent of Obese (BMI > 30) in U.S. Adults in 2010 by state

These snapshots reveal a very disturbing trend: the rise in obesity in the US from 1985 to 2010. Today one third of adults in the US are obese, another third are overweight.

Because obesity has risen to epidemic levels—causing devastating and costly health problems, reducing life expectancy, and provoking stigma and discrimination—the NIH has established the NIH Obesity Research Task Force to accelerate progress in obesity research. For example, why are some individuals more susceptible to obesity? Can knowledge of biology and behavior be leveraged to develop better intervention strategies? What strategies work? For whom? Can these approaches be scaled up?


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