It is universally known that losing weight is as simple as burning more calories than one consumes. However, while it is well known fact that gaining weight is a result of imbalance between what we eat and our energy expenditure, scientists now found out that the nervous system plays a role as well. Researchers at the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have now uncovered unique role of nerve cells in the body’s use of energy.
Baoji Xu, professor who led the research, said that this new study “has identified novel populations of nerve cells that regulate appetite, thermogenesis and physical activity,” and now scientists think that “these neurons could be targets for drug development”. Results of this study will shed a new light on how nervous system participates in gaining or losing weight and in the body’s use of energy.
During the research team of scientists examined several groups of neurons that express a substance called” “BDNF” (for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor”). The research was concentrated in a small brain region called the paraventricular hypothalamus. BDNF is a protein, involved in performing of number of different functions. It was discovered before that deleting the gene responsible for BDNF causes many problems, including dramatically increased appetite, known ashyperphagia, and consequently a severe obesity. However, new study shed more light onto the role of BDNF.
This research found that deleting said gene also impairs thermogenesis—the ability of cells to burn fat to produce heat. Study also shows that there are two distinct types of BDNF neurons—those that control appetite or satiety and those that control thermogenesis. These two different types of BDNF perform two very different functions and are located in different parts of the paraventricular hypothalamus. Scientists are still trying to figure out what this means to the control of body weight.
Scientists say that further research is needed. They still do not know whether these two clusters of neurons communicate with each other. However, they do know that mice as well as humans with the mutations in the gene responsible for BDNF usually develop a severe obesity, which means that further research should be aimed at understanding the mechanisms underlying the effect BDNF has on body weight and the regulation of energy balance. This also means that potential treatments may be targeted towards the BDNF.
As this new research provided scientists with new knowledge about the role of nervous system on the body weight and energy expenditure, scientists now are thinking about further directions of the research and practical applications of the results. They say that BDNF could become a drug target to activate each of these two populations of neurons. It should powerfully suppress appetite or promote energy expenditure, which would help to lose weight. However, since BDNF’s functions are so widespread, potential drugs need to be very precise and must only target BDNF-expressing neurons in the paraventricular hypothalamus, thus limiting potential side effects.
It may look like a small scientific discovery. But obesity is a big problem in today’s world and understanding processes involved in energy expenditure and fat burning is crucially important to make society healthier.