A groundbreaking study by UCL researchers uncovers the direct influence of hunger hormones produced in the gut on the brain’s decision-making processes, particularly in relation to food choices. The research, published in Neuron and conducted on mice, reveals insights into the intricate interplay between hunger and neural activity in the hippocampus.
Lead author Dr. Andrew MacAskill from UCL’s Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology department emphasizes the profound impact of hunger on decision-making. He explains how the study delves into the complexity of contextual learning, highlighting the brain’s sensitivity to hunger hormones and its role in contextualizing eating choices.
The study involved observing hungry and satiated mice in an arena with food, using real-time brain imaging to analyze neural activity. The focus was on the ventral hippocampus, a critical decision-making region associated with memory-guided behavior. Intriguingly, the researchers found that hunger hormones, particularly ghrelin, directly influenced the activity of specific brain cells in the ventral hippocampus.
Dr. MacAskill notes that the hippocampus acts as a regulatory mechanism, preventing animals from overeating when encountering food. However, when hungry, reduced neural activity in this region allows the brain to override these regulatory signals, prompting the animal to begin eating. The researchers were able to manipulate this behavior experimentally by activating or inhibiting specific neurons, providing further evidence of the role of ghrelin receptors in this process.
The study sheds light on the ability of hunger hormones to cross the blood-brain barrier, impacting the brain’s circuitry in a manner likely to be similar in humans. Dr. MacAskill emphasizes the potential implications for understanding eating disorders and links between diet and mental health outcomes.
First author Dr. Ryan Wee underscores the importance of comprehending how hunger influences decision-making, emphasizing its crucial role in preventing serious health problems. The ongoing research aims to explore the broader impact of hunger on learning and memory, offering potential insights into stress and thirst mechanisms.
The UCL researchers anticipate that their findings could contribute significantly to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders, providing a deeper understanding of the involvement of ghrelin receptors in the hippocampus.