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BNA Interview Series: Hunger Games With Lora Heisler

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At the British Neuroscience Association (BNA)’s Festival of Neuroscience in April 2019, we were lucky enough to sit down with some influential neuroscientists to discuss their work. We’ve assembled these transcripts into our BNA Interview Series. Read Lora Heisler’s interview below. 

Professor Lora Heisler is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow based at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health at the University of Aberdeen. Her research looks at the mechanisms underlying the development of obesity and diabetes to identify new therapeutic interventions. She presented a plenary at the Festival entitled: Hunger games: New insights into the brain control of hunger

Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): Could you tell us about how the brain circuits are involved with obesity and diabetes?

Lora Heisler (LH): You’d imagine that obesity and diabetes would be regulated by peripheral tissue such as the gut, but in fact the brain has an essential role. In particular there is a brain region called the hypothalamus that’s really important for regulating how we control both hunger and feeling full, so that’s one of the key regions.

RM: What has research into these mechanisms taught you about the control of hunger in the brain?

LH: There are particular cells within this homeostatic brain region called the hypothalamus that help us control how hungry we feel and when we feel full after we have been eating a meal. What we look at is how those cells can be harnessed for future obesity and diabetes medications.

RM: How significantly can diet and body weight affect the neurobiology underpinning hunger and has this shed any light on potential treatment for obesity and diabetes?

LH: What’s really interesting about these cells in the hypothalamus that regulate how full we feel is that the activity of these cells seems to slow down when we eat too much high-fat diet or a typical Western diet. But knowing how important these cells are, what we are able to do is think about ways that we can restore their activity. There are current medications in human use already in the United States and what they do is they re-establish cellular activity to help us maintain balance, to help us eat what our body requires.  So that’s where we are right now. We are identifying particular cells in the brain that are really essential for controlling appetite and then looking for ways that we can harness their activity for medication.  

RM: Is it just hunger and fullness that this medication addresses?

LH: In fact what we found is that the same receptors that impact hunger and fullness in the brain also impact how good food tastes or food reward.  So what we are able to do is by giving a medication that activates these receptors all over multiple brain regions, we are not only able to advance the feeling of fullness but also reduce food reward or in other words, the dessert effect. You know how when you’re full but you still want dessert? In our brain's reward pathway, these cells reduce the desire for foods like chocolate.  

Lora Heisler was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Science Writer for Technology Networks. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.