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Scientists discover appetite-controlling brain cells

By
Ryan Maass
By activating glial cells in mice, scientists observed a sharp uptick in appetite. Photo by svariophoto/Shutterstock
By activating glial cells in mice, scientists observed a sharp uptick in appetite. Photo by svariophoto/Shutterstock

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Glial cells in the brain may play a central role in regulating appetite, MIT neuroscientists discovered in a recent study.

In an experiment using mice, the research team was able to demonstrate that activating glial cells causes overeating, and suppressing their activity causes a significant drop in appetite. Scientists say the findings may influence the development of new drugs to combat obesity and other appetite-related disorders.

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"In the last few years, abnormal glial cell activities have been strongly implicated in neurodegenerative disorders. There is more and more evidence to point to the importance of glial cells in modulating neuronal function and in mediating brain disorders," senior author Guoping Feng explained in a press release.

During the experiment, researchers analyzed glial cells residing within the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that has long been associated with appetite regulation in addition to energy expenditure and sleep cycles. The findings were published in the journal eLife.

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"I was very curious at that point what glial cells would be doing in the hypothalamus, since glial cells have been shown in other brain areas to have an influence on regulation of neuronal function," lead author Naiyan Chen said.

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While examining activity in the hypothalamus, scientists identified two key groups of neurons, called AgRP and POMC. The former was found to stimulate feeding, while the latter was found to suppress feeding.

The authors note performing this type of analysis has been difficult for scientists in the past due to underdeveloped techniques for silencing or stimulating these cells. The research team completed their study using a strategy which engineers specific glial cells called astrocytes to produce a surface receptor, which activates the cells.

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