Scientists Have Figured Out How to Turn Off Hunger
Recently, scientists have been coming up with more and more, er, creative ways of combatting the potentially fatal effects of obesity. Soon though, people with overeating disorders might have a single solution that stops the problem at the root. We could just turn off part of their brain.
In pioneering research, a team of scientists led by Joshua Jennings and Garret Stuber of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill genetically engineered a group of mice so that a small cluster of neurons (located in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis or BNST) would either fire or turn off in response to light. More importantly, though, these neurons send messages into the lateral hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain known to play a role in the body’s appetite. In this experiment, it showed.
As soon as scientists shone a laser into the brains of mice whose neurons were engineered to shut down in response to light, the subjects refused to eat, even when they were hungry. Flipping the switch on mice whose brains were programmed to do the opposite in response to light caused the opposite effect; they went on an overeating spree that didn’t stop until the laser went dark, regardless of how full they were.
These tests don’t definitively tell us whether or not these measures would help in the long term; each round only lasted for 20 minutes. However, we do have a much better idea of how the pathways that regulate the desire to eat work, which could help us make huge advances in treating a variety of eating disorders, including both anorexia and overeating. Because unlike other treatments, we wouldn’t just be treating a symptom. We’d be taking down the problem right at the source.