Researchers Discover Brain Target For Appetite Control

By Amir Khan on June 8, 2012 9:21 AM EDT

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Researchers looking for a way to curb obesity were able to turn off the brain's hunger signal in mice. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Researchers looking for a way to curb obesity were able to turn off the brain's hunger signal in mice. By manipulating a protein in the mouse's brain, the researchers were able to change the mouse's appetite and metabolism.

"We call it an orphan receptor," Dr. Domenico Accili, study author and a professor of medicine and Columbia University Medical Center, told Fox News. "We know it's a receptor, but we don't know the substance that activates this receptor. However, we know from past studies that there are certain drugs that can activate or inhibit this receptor. Because a similar receptor exists in people, it can be used by people for similar purposes, so we hope to do a clinical study to see if this holds true."

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The protein, called, Gpr17, controls the brain's response to insulin, which is integral to the hunger response. When the researchers increased the hormone, the mouse's appetite increased. When they lowered it, their appetite lowered as well.

There are several drugs, such as asthma medications and blood thinners, that target Gpr17 in humans, but cannot cross the blood brain battier. Researchers said with some modification, those medications could be used to curb hunger and help fight the obesity epidemic.

"If we were able to tweak those medications so they cross into the brain, they could probably have positive effects against weight gain and help us control appetite," Accili told ABC News.

More than 35 percent of adults in the U.S. older than 20 are obese. In 1985, no state had an obesity rate higher than 14 percent. By 2010, no state had an obesity rate lower than 20 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Costs associated with obesity accounts for $190 billion annually. More than 20.6 percent of all national health expenditures is spent on managing obesity and the related plethora of health problems.

Accili told Fox News that it's possible the protein could play a character in obesity, and said the findings do not rule out a genetic role.

"One of the things we're hoping to learn over the next few weeks is to ask whether the same gene that we identified has also been implicated in any of the genetic studies of obesity," Accili said. "We're optimistic that when geneticists do gene hunts for obesity, one of the first things they'll do is to look into their databases to see if our gene is lighting up."

While the findings are exciting, Dr. Charles Clark, a professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, said hunger is too complex to be controlled by this one protein.

"Control of weight is too integral and too important [in human development] to have been left to the control of a single protein," he told ABC News. "The more we understand about appetite and weight control, the more complex we find them."

Researchers said there could be drug that targets this protein in a few years.

"This is a clear path forward to the clinic," Accili said. "We just have to modify the existing drugs."

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