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Do you know why you overeat? Researchers discovered the reason

by Rishika Choudhury

Date & Time: Oct 27, 2022 8:00 PM

Read Time: 2 minute

Fear is controlled by the amygdala, a part of the brain. Researchers have discovered that the amygdala is also responsible for overeating. Professor Bo Li of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) discovered a group of neurons in the amygdala that cause mice to eat fatty or sweet foods even when they are not hungry. Therapeutics that target these neurons could lead to novel obesity treatments with minimal side effects.

Mice, like most people, prefer foods that are high in fat and sugar. They might eat these treats for pleasure rather than survival. This hedonic eating behaviour is triggered by the neurons Li and his colleagues studied.

Li’s observation

"Even if the animal is supposed to stop eating because they are already full, if those neurons are still active, it can still drive those animals to eat more."

Almost no one succeeds in long-term weight management when treating obesity, Li said. Metabolic processes in the body often reverse any progress that's made. 

Therapeutics can help increase the odds of successful treatment, but many drugs have unwanted side effects. "The medications currently available to aid weight management can cause significant side effects. So, a more targeted approach is needed," Li said. "Identifying the brain circuitry that controls eating is important for developing better treatment options for people who struggle to control their weight."

When the team switched off the specific neurons, mice weren't drawn to the fatty, sugary foods that had tempted them before. "They just happily ate and stayed healthy," Li said. "They not only stopped gaining weight, but also seemed to be much healthier overall." By turning off these neurons, researchers were able to reduce overeating and protect against obesity. It also increased the animals' physical activity, which resulted in weight loss and improved metabolic health.

Li and his colleagues are investigating ways to manipulate the neurons that cause hedonic eating. The next step, he says, is to figure out how these neurons respond to different types of food and what makes them so sensitive. He hopes that this collaboration will result in new strategies for effective anti-obesity therapeutics.

Li and CSHL Associate Professor Stephen Shea combined their neuroscience expertise with CSHL Professor Tobias Janowitz's expertise in metabolism and endocrinology for this study. They also worked with CSHL Assistant Professor Semir Beyaz, an expert in gut and nutrition research. It is part of a multidisciplinary initiative at CSHL to investigate the connections between the brain and the body.

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